Broken Beautiful Hearts by Kami Garcia


  I bring my knee up as hard as I can, and it lands squarely between Reed’s legs. He doubles over.

  I take off running. It’s the first time I’ve tried to run since the surgery, and it feels awkward. I’m off-balance and not moving at top speed, but I’m running.

  “Peytonnnn!” Reed shouts.

  So much for incapacitating him. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

  I see the door.

  It’s not much farther.

  The voices behind me get louder, but I can’t turn around. Losing one second might be the difference between making it out of here or Reed catching up to me.

  The door is so close, and a pale light glows on the other side. Maybe the cops found the side entrance.

  I’m going to make it.

  I cross the threshold at the same time my knee gives out, and my body crashes against the stone. People shout my name.

  In a blur of movement, a figure rushes past me.

  It’s Owen.

  Why didn’t he stop?

  When I look back at the tunnel, I understand.

  Reed is only a few feet away.

  Owen throws an elbow and catches Reed in the jaw. I hear the sick crack of Reed’s skull as it hits the tunnel wall. But it doesn’t take him down.

  Reed pivots and tries to sweep Owen’s legs out from under him, but Owen catches him in a headlock. Two cops come barreling down the tunnel, from inside the building.

  The voices I heard must have been theirs.

  Reed must’ve done a shitty job of hiding the tunnel entrance.

  One cop grabs Owen and throws him against the wall, and the other officer grabs Reed.

  I point at Owen. “He didn’t do anything wrong. He was trying to help me.”

  The cops don’t respond. Either they can’t hear me over Reed’s nonstop string of profanity, or they’re not interested in my opinion.

  Owen cooperates while the cop pats him down and cuffs him.

  “Someone told me there was a party here tonight,” Reed yells at the officer who is stuck dealing with him. “I don’t know anything about fighting and gambling. Do I sound like I’m from around here?”

  A third officer emerges from the tunnel carrying Reed’s gym bag. “I found this in there.”

  “That’s his bag.” I point at Reed. “And it has drugs inside.”

  “That’s not mine,” Reed says. “It was on the floor of the tunnel when I got there.”

  “He’s lying.”

  The older cop nods at the bag. “Let me take a look inside.”

  The officer unzips it and fishes around. He takes out the same black box I found the night Reed pushed me. He opens it and tilts the box so the older cop can see the contents.

  “That’s not my bag!” Reed shouts.

  “I can prove it’s his. There’s a gym membership card in one of the inside pockets. It has his picture on it.”

  “You bitch!” Reed turns and tries to charge in my direction.

  The cop holding his arm jerks Reed back. “Let’s go check out the back of the squad car.” He flips over Reed’s gym ID and adds, “Mr. Michaels.”

  I didn’t single-handedly take Reed down with a palm strike, but I got away from him.

  And I went into the tunnel—and not just for five minutes.

  I was in there for a long time, and I held it together well enough to deal with Reed. No one talked me through it, except Dad. I faced my demons and I kicked one of them in the balls.

  All around, tonight feels like a win.

  A cop leads Owen around to the front of the mill behind Reed and his badge-wielding escort.

  Owen looks back at me. “I kept my promise.”

  Owen promised he wouldn’t hurt me and he didn’t.

  In front of the mill I see Tess, Tucker, and Grace in the glow of the red-and-blue flashing lights. Tucker waves at me and tries to talk his way past the cop in charge of keeping the small group of nosy people away from the building. Tess is with him.

  Grace is busy yelling at Cam, while a cop yanks him off TJ. Why is Cameron wearing his football pads and uniform?

  “Peyton, you’re okay!” Christian calls out from the lineup of handcuffed guys sitting on the ground. He’s wearing his football uniform, too.

  The cop supervising the lineup notices me. “Are you all right, Miss? You don’t look so good.”

  “I’m okay.”

  I look for Tess, and I see her walking toward me. “I told the police about the drugs. I had to do it. It’s the only way Reed will get help. He won’t stop on his own.”

  She nods, her lip trembling. “I know. And I want my brother back.”

  I’m not sure if the brother she’s talking about still exists. For Tess’ sake, I hope so.

  I search for Owen in the lineup.

  “He’s over there next to Cameron,” Grace says, trudging over to us. “Maybe Owen can talk some sense into him.”

  Owen is sitting cross-legged in the dirt with the Twins. Out of the three of them, Cam’s the one who looks like he was involved in an underground fight. At least Owen isn’t in the back of a squad car, like Reed.

  “Why are the Twins wearing their football uniforms?” I ask. “Did they come straight from the game?”

  Grace shakes her head and smiles. “The game didn’t end until thirty minutes ago. They walked out during halftime.”

  “They just left in the middle of the game?” I ask.

  “Yep. Cameron almost left before the game even started. He freaked when I didn’t show up with the rest of the squad.” Grace gives me a shy smile. “I texted him—and Christian—to tell them you were in trouble, but they were already on the field. Coach makes the players leave their phones in the locker room, so they didn’t read my text until halftime. Then they took off.”

  Without thinking, I reach for my phone to call Hawk. I need to tell him what happened and ask him to meet me at the police station with bail money, for the three bravest guys I know.

  Then I remember my phone is gone. It’s on the floor of the tunnel.

  Shattered.

  I’ll never hear Dad’s message again.

  But it’s okay.

  I remember everything about my father—his unruly dark hair and his lopsided smile; how he ate guava paste straight from the package and he squeezed just hard enough when he caught me in a bear hug; the way he could bounce a soccer ball on his knee for fifteen minutes without dropping it and he cussed at the TV in Spanish if Cuba was losing a soccer game.

  I remember the way his voice sounded when he cheered me on from the sidelines and how it sounded different when he told me he loved me.

  I don’t need the phone anymore.

  The memory of Dad’s voice is all I need.

  And I’ll carry it with me.

  CHAPTER 43

  The Things I Carry

  WHEN I COME downstairs in the morning, Hawk is sitting at the breakfast table drinking a cup of coffee, with Dutch stretched out at his feet. My uncle looks like he’s been awake all night.

  I pour myself a cup and sit across from him. “Did you get any sleep?”

  Hawk shakes his head. “Not yet. It took a while to bail out the boys, and then they wanted to give me a minute-by-minute recap. But old men like me don’t need much sleep.”

  Dutch howls as if he agrees.

  “Don’t let Mom hear you say that. You’re only two years older than her,” I remind him. “Are the boys okay? Getting arrested couldn’t have been much fun.”

  “I don’t know about that. Christian was excited to cross it off his bucket list. And your friend Grace waited at the police station until Cameron was released, and he seemed real happy about it.”

  The cops had probably still been taking my statement. It felt like I was answering their questions for hours.

  “I think Grace was waiting for Christian. She’s had a crush on him for a long time.”

  Hawk considers it for a moment. “She might be over Christian.”

/>   “Why would you say that?” I ask.

  “Well she was kissing Cameron in the parking lot.”

  “Are you sure?”

  He nods. “Positive.”

  Hawk leans back in his chair and rubs the scruff on his chin. “The boys filled me in after I bailed them out. They said your ex-boyfriend was arrested for drug possession.”

  “Yep.” I take a sip of coffee. “He’ll get kicked out of the MMA league.”

  “I hope that makes it easier to put this behind you and exorcise that demon.”

  “I think so, but I need your help to face another one.” I take a deep breath. “Will you tell me what happened to Dad the night he died?”

  “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that question for a year and a half. In my head, I’ve rehearsed what I’d tell you a hundred times. But now that you’re sitting in front of me, I can’t remember a word of it. How much do you want to know?”

  “Everything.”

  “All right.” Hawk stays quiet for a moment. This can’t be easy for him to talk about. “We were doing a BDA—a Battle Damage Assessment—in the basement of a hotel in Fallujah that had been firebombed. The insurgents were using the basement to house guns and supplies. An air strike had already leveled the area. It was a routine mission for us. That’s what we thought anyway.

  “We went in as a five-man fire team. Your dad as team leader and sniper, Rudy as point man, Mad Dog on the radio, and Big John as our gunner.”

  “Why weren’t you in the tunnel with them?” It’s the only reason my uncle is here to tell the story.

  Hawk’s eyes cloud over and he clears his throat. “I was guardian angel that day. That’s what we call the team member assigned to overwatch.”

  “What does that mean exactly?” I was used to listening to Dad talk shop with Hawk and other recon operators. On a good day, I understood about half of what they were saying. Force recon was such a tight-knit brotherhood that the men had developed their own shorthand for everything.

  “My job was to find high ground and use optics to keep eyes on the area—watching for unfriendlies and anything out of the ordinary. I also manned the comms between our team and base. Mad Dog was on the radio giving me the rundown of what they were seeing, and then I relayed information to base. Mad Dog was on the radio with me when it happened.”

  A knot forms in my throat. “What happened?”

  “One minute everything was going according to plan. Then, out of nowhere, there was an explosion. The basement must’ve been rigged. The insurgents had buried Howitzer munitions under pressure plates in the floor. We’d seen that kind of thing before. When those bitches blew, they could take out a Humvee.”

  “So Dad probably died right away?”

  “In close quarters, with an explosion that big, I’d bet my life on it. Once the area was secured, I went in with the rescue squadron to recover—” Hawk looks at me.

  “The bodies,” I finish for him. “It’s okay. You can say it.”

  My uncle nods. “We had to dig them out of the rubble. Your dad had two things on him that weren’t Marine Corps–issued—a blue string tied around his wrist and a picture of you. The day we left for Iraq, your mom cut a piece of string in half, and she tied one half to your dad’s wrist and the other half to hers. She said the string would keep them connected. The string was something new, but that picture of you wasn’t. It was falling apart, because your dad carried it in his pocket on every mission. I’d like to think that in the end, he found peace knowing that he had a little bit of you with him.”

  I think back to Tim O’Brien’s book and Miss Ives’ assignment. The soldiers in the novel carried tangible and intangible things—photos and pebbles, hope and fear. That’s when I realize what the picture of me really meant.

  I’m the thing my dad carried.

  I kept him grounded and got him through the rough times. The way he helped me in the tunnel.

  A moment later, I hear footsteps on the stairs. Then the Twins wander into the kitchen.

  Christian holds out his wrists for Hawk to see. “Check out the bruises from the handcuffs. I bet they’ll last until Monday.”

  Hawk takes a sip of his coffee. “Most people wouldn’t be this happy about getting arrested.”

  “I was helping Peyton. That’s all that matters, right?”

  Cam makes a fist, and Christian taps his fist against his brother’s.

  “Well, you might not be as happy about it once Coach gets ahold of you for walking off the field,” Hawk says.

  “Are you saying we shouldn’t have left?” Christian asks.

  “Of course you should’ve left. I’m just saying I don’t think Coach will see it that way.”

  Cam opens the fridge and takes out a milk carton. “Christian is getting pretty good at push-ups.”

  Christian balls up a kitchen towel and pelts Cam with it. “Shut it. No one asked you.”

  Cameron raises the carton as if he’s about to do his usual. But then he stops, opens the cabinet, and takes out a glass.

  Progress.

  Christian walks over and squeezes my shoulder. “You okay?”

  “I’m good.”

  “Have you talked to your mom again?” Hawk asks. “She should only be a few hours away.”

  “I called her from the police station.”

  Hawk’s expression turns serious. “That boy is lucky I didn’t get my hands on him.”

  “Don’t worry, Pop. We took care of it.” Christian pushes past Cam and rifles through the fridge. He takes out a carton of eggs and stares at them like they’re an alien food source.

  I wait for Christian to ask me to make scrambled eggs. He looks over at me.

  Here it comes.

  “Go ahead, ask,” I tell him. After the Twins walked off the football field to come after me last night, I’ll cook them anything they want.

  “I was just wondering if you’d … teach me how to make scrambled eggs,” he says sheepishly.

  For a second, I’m not sure if I heard him correctly. But then I see the shocked expression on my uncle’s face.

  “You want me to teach you how to make them?”

  “Us,” Cam says. “I want to learn, too.”

  “What happened to cooking is for chicks?” I’m not trying to give Christian a hard time. I’m actually curious.

  “I changed my mind.” Christian takes out the bowl he’s seen me use. “I mean, you’re not staying here forever. Not that I want you to leave, but I figured I’d better learn ’cause Pop’s scrambled eggs suck.”

  Hawk points at him. “Now you’d better learn how to cook those eggs, because I’m not making you breakfast anymore after that.”

  I walk over to the counter and take the carton. “You’re going to need a fork, too.”

  Christian tries to crack an egg into the bowl, and he ends up crushing it into his hand instead.

  “Nice.” Cam laughs. “Try to get some in the bowl, bro.”

  “You have to tap the egg against the edge of the bowl.” I demonstrate with another egg. “Like this.”

  “Now you tell me.” Christian rinses his hands under the faucet. “That seems like the kinda thing you should’ve said at the beginning.”

  Cam picks up an egg. “I’ll do the cracking.” He does a slightly better job and he manages to get most of the egg—along with all of the shell—into the bowl.

  “See? It’s not as easy as it looks. You suck, too,” Christian says.

  Cam wipes his hands on his sweats. “Cooking is trickier than it looks.”

  I take another egg out of the carton and hand it to Cam. “Try again. If you can stop a two-hundred-pound guy from tackling you, then you can make scrambled eggs.”

  I stand between the Twins, watching them compete to see who can get the least amount of eggshell in the bowl.

  I’m going to miss them when I go back home.

  They’re not who I thought they were when I arrived in Black Water. But I’m probably not the person
they were expecting, either.

  The doorbell rings, and Dutch howls. Hawk checks his watch. “Your mom couldn’t have made it here this fast.”

  Cam wipes his hands on a dish towel. “Actually, it’s Grace. I invited her to come over. You know, after she waited for me—” He glances at Christian. “I mean us, last night.”

  “We both know she wasn’t waiting for me.” Christian takes a fork and stirs the eggs in a circular motion instead of beating them.

  Cameron jams his hands in the pockets of his sweatpants. “Are you cool with that?”

  “It’s a little late to ask now. You already kissed her,” Christian says. “But it’s cool.”

  “I heard about the kissing,” I call after Cam as he rushes to answer the door.

  “One kiss,” he yells back.

  Christian is still stirring the eggs like cake batter.

  “You have to beat them.” I take the fork and show him, but Christian snatches it back and angles the bowl away from me.

  “I’ve got this. You can start teaching again when we put the eggs in the pan.” He points the fork at me and accidentally flings raw egg across the kitchen. “Whoa. Like I said, this cooking thing is harder than it looks.”

  Dutch howls again when Cam opens the front door.

  I nudge Christian with my shoulder. “That was pretty cool of you.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I knew Cameron and Grace were meant for each other the whole time.”

  He’s lying, but I don’t call him on it. “You’d better be careful, Christian Carter. People might find out you’re a sweetheart.”

  “Shh. Keep it down. Grace is here. That kind of talk would ruin my reputation.” He takes out a frying pan and a stick of butter. I try not to laugh when he drops the whole stick in the pan.

  “How many eggs are you planning to make, exactly?” I ask.

  “What? Too much?” Christian reaches for the hunk of butter in the center of the pan.

  “Don’t touch—”

  He touches the butter—and the pan—and yanks his arm away. “Damn. That’s hot!”

  “Come here.” I turn on the faucet and blast the cold water. “Put your hand under. Maybe we should start with something easier than scrambled eggs.”

 
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