Warning: Foul Language. Pictures may take a while to load. There is a song ‘written’ by Cherry to accompany this chapter (Lift Me Up by Mree) which I’ve included because it reflects her feelings perfectly, the artist’s voice is just like what I imagine Cherry’s to be, and also it’s one of my favourite songs! Listen to it while you read, if you want. It might be distracting so you should put the volume down low. Also, please pretend as if the guys’ jeans aren’t skinny af (you’ll see what I mean). I hope you enjoy this chapter, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it!
The dawn arrives quickly, turning the sky outside my window into a dream of pink and gold light. I exhale, feeling the soft quilt underneath me shift slightly. Today is my eighteenth birthday.
How long have I waited for this dawn? Nine, ten years? Ten years of waiting, dreams of playing my songs to unknown faces chasing each other around my head, as continual as music box clockwork. And, theoretically, today I could fold my precious electronic piano into my baby-blue vintage Mini Cooper and leave without a word to my family.
So why do I feel uneasy? Is it because I am supposed to become a police officer soon, and instead I’m thinking to run? I still haven’t talked to my mother about my plans, too scared of her reaction. The fear is a heavy weight in my chest.
Without really intending to, my legs swing off the bed and carry me over to the piano, which looks over the distant grey hills, their forms soft and sleepy.
The music flows easily from my fingers into the piano, and the notes are sweet and slow. The smooth, worn keys are familiar and comforting under my fingertips. This is what I love doing; no matter how much physically stronger Mom’s police training has made me, I can’t help but be drawn back to the gentle, harmonious cadences of music. And yet I cannot find the strength to voice my thoughts. What am I going to do?
Amongst the dawn chorus, I try to sing my fears away.
Mom’s prepared coffee just how I like it; black, caramel syrup, topped with a light layer of fresh cream. She’s brought out the quirky cat coffee pot and matching mugs that she found years ago in a Sunday market, back when she used to like that sort of thing — childish nonsense, she would call now. Dad’s made banana bread too, still steaming from the oven, piled with strawberries that my Grandma Fern picked from her own garden.
Cinna and Cara are sitting at the table, evidently waiting for our father and I to arrive. The air is fresh and sweet, smelling of summer blooms and sea salt. My sisters barely acknowledge me as I step out of the kitchen doors, both of them looking more stressed than usual; exactly how I feel.
Mom smiles at me, and I smile back, momentarily relieved of the heavy weight as surprise fills me instead. My mother looks like she’s stepped back in time — the relaxed hairstyle and outfit seems to have erased age from her face, to the way she used to be ten years ago. “Happy Birthday, Cherry,” She says, and the happiness in her voice is as beautiful as she looks. It makes me feel guilty.
My father bounds into the garden a few minutes later, and it’s obvious he’s noticed the change in his wife, too. “MY BABIES ARE ADULTS!” He yells, ruffling Cara’s hair and generally acting like a five year old. But his enthusiasm is enough to make us all smile.
We all dig into breakfast, except for Cara. She looks tired today, although her makeup is perfect as usual. There’s something in her green eyes that makes me wonder if my sister is more than just shocked about her eighteenth birthday.
“What do you three want to do today?” Mom says lightly as she stacks dirty plates. Cinna replies with her usual I’m-going-to-go-out-with-my-boyfriend, but Cara is unusually quiet, muttering something about staying home and relaxing. “Cherry?” My mother repeats, brushing the top of my head affectionately.
“The beach,” I reply. There’s nothing better than spending my birthday with nobody but the seagulls. After all, that’s what I’ve done for the past ten years.
The beach in question is a secluded little cove a few minutes away from our house, hidden from downtown Sunset Valley by a crown of green hills. My mother and I have been here together a few times, but more often just myself. The quietness makes for an ideal escape, and the beach is beautiful, too; soft white-gold sand and uninterrupted sea as shiny as glass.
A Starbucks opened in town a year ago, so I always take a loop round to the coffee shop before coming here. Today it’s iced caramel frappuccino, my favourite, but for some reason, I’m too unfocused and hollow to feel like drinking it today. I think of how radiant my mother looked today, happy and hopeful for her three daughters. I don’t want to destroy that, not after all those years of lost happiness. But what about my own hopes?
I am so deep in thought that I don’t notice that my frappucino is gone, until someone is dangling it in my face. “What the hell?” I glance up, startled. A guy — maybe in his early twenties — stands in front of me, dressed carelessly in black leather pants, Adidas shirt, and worn Converse. The sunlight hides his face, but there’s something familiar about him — his height, and his muscular build.
“Caramel,” The guy observes, in a deep, smoky, and arrogant voice. He tilts the plastic cup, so the drops of water on it sparkle in the sun. “Great, I’m thirsty.”
I shoot to my feet, shocked and outraged. “Hey, that’s mine!” The stranger looks at me with raised eyebrows, and an electric pulse of surprise goes through my body. “You weren’t drinking it,” He points out. The expression on his attractive face is cocky, a face that is hauntingly similar to one I still clearly remember from two years ago.
I stand there gaping at him until he lifts the frappucino slowly to his lips, his green eyes still narrowed mockingly at me. Spurred by a sudden burst of anger, I snatch the cup out of his hands. The look he’s giving me — it reminds me of Teddy Schnauzer, how he thinks he can do anything and no one will stop him.
The guy widens his eyes for a fraction of a second, before leaning down towards me, a new kind of smile playing around his lips that makes me stiffen, suddenly uneasy. Looking at his face, I notice three long scars crisscrossing his right eye, and with further unease note that for the second time, a stranger doesn’t seem to notice my scars. The sudden quietness in him sends off alarm bells in my head. Underneath this brash, handsome veneer… lies something a lot more dangerous.
So before he can do anything, I drop the frappucino and move faster than he can react, to send him flying backwards in a powerful roundhouse kick. Just like Ted two years ago, the stranger crashes into the sand with a torrent of curses. He rolls to a crouch with unsettling ease, his eyes momentarily blazing with anger, but then smiles and says something that I don’t catch through the pain in my foot. As much as I hate to admit it, that guy must have a serious pack of abdominal muscles or else my foot would honestly not be stinging this badly.
“I told you not to aggravate her, Luc.” A new voice says from beside me, quietly amused and achingly familiar. Out of my peripheral vision, I see another guy standing there; dressed also in black, his hands in his pockets. Luc laughs, and leans back, then winces. Well. At least I had an impact. “I was just testing her.” He grins, suddenly looking like a Cheshire cat. “Luckily for you, she passed my expectations.”
“Can someone tell me what the hell is going on?” I finally look at the other guy, and it’s him. The same elegant face, balancing on the fine line between feminine and masculine, but harder, less gentle, perhaps more tired. Upon my question, his frown doesn’t change, but his blue-grey eyes light up, like sunlight through glass muted with winter rain.
“What are you doing here?” My voice comes out harsher than expected, probably my nerves are still knotted up from Luc. He tilts his head slightly, just as calm as the last time we talked. “I do remember you saying it would be nice to meet again.” “Oh, you just remembered after two years?” A well of emotions I didn’t even know I had bursts, anger and crushed hope, taking form in a completely unintended slap.
I’m instantly mortified, but the boy — well, man — simply rubs his cheek lightly. “Sorry,” I whisper, and sit down, confused from the sudden rush of feelings. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t forget, things just… came up.” He kneels down in front of me and reaches out a careful hand, but I shake my head. “Don’t touch me.”
Behind him, Luc gives a low laugh, now standing up with his arms crossed. “Hear that, Gabriel? This must be the first girl who doesn’t want you to touch her. Or me, either.” He frowns at me, looking sombre, as if such a thing could not possibly exist.
“You are the most self-conceited person I have ever had the displeasure to meet.” I recover myself and snap at Luc, who smiles wickedly. “Self-conceited is my best quality.” He runs a hand through his dark hair, irritatingly supreme. “My nickname is Lucifer for a reason.” Fitting.
“Ignore him.” Gabriel — his name just as pretty as he is — leans back, draping an arm over his knee. “Can you?” Lucifer asks arrogantly, and from the way Gabriel sighs, I garner that this must be common behaviour. “Luc, stop,” He says quietly, his brows pinched in a frown. To my surprise, Lucifer shuts up.
Gabriel gives me an analytical look, and then speaks again, not to me. “Can I talk to Cherry alone?” There is a brief pause before Luc nods and leaves. “Sorry, my brother has issues.” They are siblings. Go figure. I hug my knees in the ensuing quiet, suspicion setting in after the initial shock wears away. “How do you know my name?” I whisper. “And why are you here?”
“You are the daughter of a famed police chief.” Gabriel answers steadily. “As of why I’m here, I cannot answer so easily. Look at me. Who do you think I am?” I bite my lip as his silver gaze coaxes mine up. “I don’t know,” I mumble, trying to ignore the way his muscles had flexed under his loose shirt as he had moved.
“You do.” And his voice is serious. Reluctantly, the observations I had collected of him piece together in my head, the way my mother had trained me to. The incredible fighting, the grace and fluidity of his movements, the calculating gaze and knowledge about me, the long disappearance and sudden reappearance, the mysterious aura to him — all of it adds up to…
“You’re some sort of government agent, or criminal.” I sigh heavily.
I half expect Gabriel to laugh and deny it, but he just nods. “Accurate enough.” He confirms, but I note that he doesn’t say which one he is. “Why are you here, then?” I ask. “I’m not formally trained in the government. I haven’t even gotten a job yet.”
“And is that what you plan to do?” Gabriel raises his eyebrows. I hesitate, shifting into a crouch as I think. “No. I want to go to another city soon.” “Where?” “I don’t know. Anywhere but here, really.” “To do what?”
“I don’t know!” I snap, suddenly annoyed by his interrogative questions. “Maybe apply to a music studio, maybe sightseeing. I just want to get away from this stupid town and it’s stupid people because I’m so damn sick of them all — does that answer your question?”
Gabriel tilts his head again, thoughts flitting across his eyes. “What if I told you that tonight, I could take you to Bridgeport?”
I go quiet. Bridgeport, a large, bustling city, quite a few hours away. An offer like this, to a girl he barely knows — he must be joking around. “What’s the catch?” I finally say.
“Nothing. I take you with my brother and I back to Bridgeport, and we give you a place to stay until you find a job.” There’s no trace of amusement in Gabriel’s voice. I stand up, clutching my frappucino, which is surprisingly still cold. “And why would you do that for me?” I catch his gaze as he stands as well, brushing sand off himself.
Gabriel leans closer to me, his dark hair ruffling as a soft, salty breeze sweeps across the beach. “I was once in a position like you,” He says after a moment of hesitation. “Stuck. Wanting to find a new life, just not quite sure how to find it. Until someone helped me out.” Gabriel gives me a searching look. “Maybe you would like the same chance. 4 Redwood Parkway, three a.m.” And then he’s gone.
I stand there for a long time, hardly feeling the palm tree digging into my back. The sun has begun sinking without me realising, rose-gold light spilling across the sky and the sea, blurring the waves so I can barely tell where the horizon is. My mind races as I process all Gabriel had just said. I’ve only known him and his brother for an hour, tops. What kind of dumbass would I have to be, to hitch a ride with two men that are practically strangers?
Tries. My mind repeats stubbornly. He could try. One skinny girl against two well-built men sounds insane, but then again, I did just complete two solid years of professional defence training under the watch of Sunset Valley’s police chief herself. And one part of me — one stupid, silly part of me — already trusts Gabriel. Something about his calm voice and gentle smile is comforting to me.
I take a sip of the caramel frappucino, letting the sweetness flood across my tongue. This is my chance, a final reason to leave. Ten hours to decide — if I should walk into darkness with another, or to stay alone in the light.
The house is quiet when I return. My father is busy mixing up a birthday cake — the different bowls of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla batter telling of our yearly Neapolitan tradition — and my mother is in her bedroom, most likely working on another report. As I pass Cara’s bedroom with the intention to think in the attic, I can’t help but catch her voice, hushed and angry. “I can’t believe this! It’s your fault, too-” Against my better judgement, I freeze outside the door. My sister is standing with her back to me, pressing her iPhone to her ear. “You can’t leave me like this, Ted! I’m going to have a fucking baby and you just decide that I’m going to deal with it all on my own-”
There’s a cold, sick swoop in my stomach. Surely even Cara… couldn’t have been that stupid? Inside the bedroom, my sister straightens her back, the way she does when she’s resolved. “Go to hell, Ted,” She says in a voice as cold as snow. “Don’t ever come near me again.” Her phone drops to the floor with a clatter.
To my increasing discomfort, Cara covers her face with her hands and begins shaking with what is unmistakeably sobs. I bite at my nails, strange feelings rising up fast within me. Despite my long feud with my sister, I can’t help feel but sorry for her. To land in such a situation when she is barely past the teenage years seems… cruel, even for Cara.
Before I know what I am doing, I gently push the doors open. Cara doesn’t seem to register my footsteps at first, her blonde curls falling across her face. “Hey,” I say softly. My sister whips around, her green eyes brimming with tears, and her expression is so raw and broken that my next words come out in a great rush. “I heard what you said to Ted, and I want to-”
Cara’s eyes flash with anger. “I have no idea what you are talking about.” Her face has closed off, and her voice is iced and sneering again. I instinctively lean back at her blatant lie. “I heard you say you’re pregnant, Caramel,” I say firmly. “And I don’t want to know how you were so careless, but I can help you-”
“I’M NOT PREGNANT!” My sister screams, and I wince, feeling myself beginning to grow angry as well. “Stop denying it. There’s nothing you can do about it but I’ll help take care of the baby, stay here to-” “Shut up!” Cara cries, her lips twisting into a shout. “Shut up, Cherry, just shut up! I am not having a baby, I’m not pregnant, Mom would kill me, I just… I can’t be.” She says the last three words in a desperate whisper, and I can tell my sister is close to breaking down completely.
“Please, Cara, let me help you.” I say softly. For a moment, I think my sister is going to begin crying again and accept my pleas, but then she shakes her head violently. “JUST GO AWAY!” And her eyes are filled with such hatred that my own rises up to meet hers.
“Fine. Fine. I’m leaving.” I slam the door shut and set off to my bedroom, now knowing exactly where I’m going to go tonight.
“Going somewhere?” A sudden flood of light stops me in my careful tracks. Cinna appears out of her bedroom, wearing a black nightie, her long black hair tied back into a ponytail. I curse silently under my breath. “Why are you still up?” I point out instead. My sister narrows her violet eyes and doesn’t answer, but her gaze flicks almost involuntarily to the kitchen skylights, where the full moon drifts slowly across the night. Suddenly I’m aware of how tired Cinna looks, with shadows under her eyes — without makeup, her face is eerily like the one I see in my mirror every day.
But before I can comment on it, her gaze shifts to the travelling bag I’m holding in my right. I can almost see the gears clicking like clockwork behind her pale, drawn face. “You’re running away,” She says flatly. No surprise or unhappiness, just the blank canvas like every other day.
“I’m not running away, I’m eighteen and an adult now,” I say defensively. “I’m perfectly entitled to leave the house without parental permission.”
“Then why are you sneaking out in the dead of the night?” Cinna snaps. Upstairs, there is a faint rustle, like someone turning over in their sleep. “Shut up!” I hiss at her. “I just don’t want to face Mom. She wouldn’t let me go.” My sister pinches the bridge of her nose, just like when our mother is angry. “You don’t want to see her disappointment as the only daughter she loves ditches all her plans for law enforcement and runs away?”
“That’s not true.” I protest. “Mom doesn’t only love-”
But my sister just shakes her head, past the point of caring. “Shit, whatever. Just… be safe, okay?” And without warning, she steps forwards and gives me a quick and awkward, but sincere, hug. “I’ll tell Mom not to go looking for you.” She looks me in the eye, a strange mixture of suppressed emotions on her face, before pushing me towards the front door with seemingly no words left to say.
I walk away, conflicting feelings beginning to chase each other around my head. Can I really do this? Walk out of the door and never look back? But then Cinna speaks. “I’m sorry,” She says quietly, and I get the feeling she’s apologising for so much more than tonight.
But the apology has come too late.
The car is parked, just as Gabriel said, in a copse of trees just off Redwood Parkway. As I make my way warily through the pines, I see the silhouette of Lucifer sitting on the hood of the car, a thin haze of smoke drifting up from the cigarette dangling from his lips.
He spots me at about the same time; his head turns and he jumps off the car surprisingly lightly. “You didn’t bail.” Luc doesn’t bother to hide the disappointment in his voice as I approach. A surprising change from the caustic arrogance before. The glowing end of the cigarette throws his angular features into brutal relief.
Before I can work up some sort of sarcastic reply, Gabriel appears out of the car. His eyes gleam an eerie silver in the dark, but the smile he gives me somehow settles my nerves. “Let’s go.”
He opens the car door for me and I slip inside, transferring my bag to my feet. Inside, it smells faintly of smoke and the leather seat is cracked underneath me. Soon after, Gabriel takes the driver’s seat and slots the keys into the ignition, before turning to look at me. “Sorry for the wait.” He apologises as Luc fails to appear in shotgun. “He’s just checking something.”
I nod tersely and look out the window, where the moon shines brightly over the ink black sea, the waves glinting like pieces of a shattered mirror. The nausea in my stomach begins boiling again. I’m really doing this, leaving for a city known for its shadows rather than its light, with two guys I barely know. I could leave right now and go back to the safety of my house, under my mother’s always watching eye.
But I don’t, because I’m done with it all.
Luc folds himself into the shotgun seat a few minutes later. After what seems like a silent conversation, Gabriel turns the ignition on, and the car rumbles to life with a soft purr.
He turns the car onto the road easily and we drive down Redwood Parkway, leaving the sparkling, poisonous lights of downtown Sunset Valley behind quickly. Unable to help myself, I twist around to just spot the dark blot of my house on the hill across the bay before we round the cliff. And it’s gone, just like that.
Then I turn to face the coming sunrise.