Violet pushed the unsettling thought away.
She slowed only once, when the heavy sweatshirt became too warm for her to wear any longer, and she tugged it over her head, tying it tightly around her waist with its sleeves. But she reached her stride again easily and settled back into her rhythm.
By the time she’d run full circle, reaching her house, her T-shirt was saturated in sweat, and she felt relaxed from head to toe.
It was the car in the driveway, and the man-boy perched on the hood waiting for her, that made her lose some of her newfound tranquillity.
He was grinning at her in a way that made her legs feel like they were made of nothing more solid than gelatin. They might have even quivered from something other than her early-morning run.
“What are you doing here?” she asked as she slowed from a jog to a walk and placed her hands on her hips. It would take her a few minutes to get her breathing back to normal. Longer if he kept smiling at her like that.
He shrugged. “I couldn’t sleep. What about you?”
She opted for the obvious and filled her voice with as much sarcasm as she could. “I live here, actually.”
“Ha-ha, smart-ass. I was asking if maybe you couldn’t sleep too.” He shook his head at her wisecrack. “You know, since you were running at six-thirty in the morning? I was gonna see if you wanted to go for a walk or something.” He eyed her up and down, looking a little disappointed as he hopped down from the car’s hood. “But it looks like you already went without me. That’s okay, it was a long shot anyway.”
Violet didn’t like the way she was suddenly so eager to be near him. Even though they’d been nearly inseparable for the past ten years, it now felt urgent to keep him close.
“All right, let’s go.”
“Are you sure?” He seemed skeptical. “I don’t want to talk you into it.”
“No, really, I’m not ready to go inside and start my homework yet anyway.” She was already leading the way into the trees that surrounded her house, and he was following right behind.
They walked for a long time like that, with him tagging along in her wake, not saying a word to each other. It was normal for Violet to take charge once they’d entered the cover of the woods; she had done so since they were just little kids. And even though Jay was nearly as familiar out here as she was after all these years, he let her lead anyway, comfortably taking second place to her.
It was already getting warm. The forecasts predicted late- summer temperatures in the low eighties. Violet loved this time of year, relishing the lingering sun before it was cast away by the wintry gloom. Summer generally arrived late in her part of the world, usually waiting until July was well under way before making a regular appearance, so the persisting summerlike temperatures were welcome for as long as they wanted to stick around.
“So, are you going to the lake today?” Jay asked, finally falling into step beside Violet as their pace slowed. They headed nowhere in particular when they hiked like this, exploring places they’d been more times than they could add up, both on, and off, the well-known paths.
Violet shrugged. “Are you?”
She already knew the answer; they both did. Today was the big end-of-summer party at Lake Tapps. Kind of a last blast before the sun disappeared for the year. Pretty much everyone they knew would be there.
Jay shrugged too. “I was thinking about it.”
Inwardly she smiled at the prospect of spending one of the few remaining lazy summer days with him at the lake. “Yeah?” she questioned, not needing him to actually ask her along. “Maybe I’ll go too.”
He grinned, practically beaming at her, and an unfamiliar warmth that had nothing to do with the weather crept through her. “Cool. You can drive,” he suggested.
She shook her head. If it had been anyone else, she’d probably feel like she was being used, but instead she loved the exhilarating feeling of having something he didn’t have, especially in light of the fact that he suddenly seemed to have everything that she wanted. “Fine, then you can buy me gas,” she added, raising her eyebrows and daring him to say no.
But the accident happened before Jay had a chance to respond.
And it was all his fault. At least that’s how Violet would remember it when she replayed it in her head. If he hadn’t been smiling at her like that when she’d looked up at him she would never have lost her concentration…or her footing.
But he had been…and she did. And when her foot failed to clear the thick, gnarled root that crossed the path in front of her, Violet felt herself careening off balance. She kept moving forward even when her foot did not, and before she knew what was happening she was plummeting toward the ground.
Jay tried to grab her, but it happened so fast.
Her hands hit the ground first, scraping against the compacted dirt, followed just milliseconds later by the sensation of the jagged rocks on the pathway ripping at the tender flesh of her knees.
When she stopped sliding, she wasn’t sure whether she was hurt more physically or emotionally.
“Vi? Are you all right?” Jay asked, right beside her now, pulling her off the ground.
Tears burned in her eyes, and it wasn’t just from the painful sting radiating up through her hands and knees. Humiliation threatened to overcome the hurt.
Jay hauled her up. She could smell his musky scent in his sweatshirt, and she tried to hold her breath against it. This was bad…this was a bad, bad place for her to be.