The following excerpt is from Chapter Fifteen of “Deceived.” It takes place between Bruce’s young daughter Angelina and her new friend Aiden.
In Angelina’s mind, Aiden had probably helped her more than anyone. Time and time again he’d been there for her. Consistently. It had started out as gestures as simple as picking up the phone when she needed someone to talk to at night. In time, it had grown to be more than that.
There was one specific time that stuck out the most to her. She and Dad had gotten into a pretty bad argument. She’d practiced particularly hard for one of her recitals and she’d really wanted him to come – he’d promised that he’d come. But when the big day actually arrived, he didn’t show up. She’d looked out at the crowd expectantly, hoping to see him smiling back up at her, but there in the front row next to her nanny was the seat that was supposed to be his… and it was empty. Empty like it always was. She’d almost choked on stage, almost totally blew it because she was so damn upset that he’d lied to her again. By the time she’d gotten to the end of her song, she was shaking with embarrassment over how close she’d come to butchering her “Ave Maria.” She hated that she was getting worked up. She never wanted to be seen as weak, never again. She was humiliated, face red, eyes stinging. And when Dad had arrived back home that night – late as usual – that was when the argument had ensued.
“You never have time for me anymore!” she hollered at him with angry tears welling in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Angelina,” he waffled. “I didn’t mean to miss your recital, but I got tied up with something very important at work and I couldn’t leave. I’ll make the next one, I promise.”
Angelina had long given up on his promises. “Yeah right! You’re a liar!” She stomped her foot and balled her palms into fists at her side. “I hate you! I’m running away and you can’t stop me!”
This wasn’t the first time she’d made such a dramatic threat, but this time she wasn’t bluffing. She was so upset that she stormed right out of the house, running out the front door and pattering down the street as she ignored him yelling behind her to stop. She didn’t bother grabbing her bike. Just ran and ran with no real destination in mind as the evening sky quickly lost its light and the sun faded purple on the horizon. She didn’t care. All she knew right now was that she needed to be with somebody else – anybody else. The only question was who? Katie’s family was out of town for the weekend, so that wouldn’t do. And without her bike, there was no way she’d make it to the other side of town where Gisele lived. The only person close enough was Aiden. She turned down his street, huffing and puffing and crying, wondering if forgetting her inhaler was a mistake she’d regret.
By the time she got to his house it was dark. The yard was dark, the windows were dark, and there was no Gunner in sight. The little pup was probably fast asleep in his dog bed, or she was sure he’d be barking up a storm right now. But no matter – she’d rather not be announced. Angelina knew which window was Aiden’s like she knew the back of her hand. She found a small rock on the ground, pulled her arm back, and threw.
Aiden sat up in bed as he heard the soft thunk against his window. What was that? He heard it again, and when he climbed out from his blue striped comforter and peeked outside, he saw Angelina sitting by the bushes against the backyard fence, looking small and lost and peering up at his window. He couldn’t see her well, but he thought that there were tears staining her cheeks.
“Psst! Aiden!” she hissed, clutching her knees to her chest.
“What are you doing here?” he hissed back. He glanced to the side, as if he were trying to be careful not to wake his sister in the next room. “It’s late already. Tomorrow’s a school night!”
“I know,” Angelina’s bottom lip quivered. “But I didn’t know where else to go. I just need somebody to talk to.”
Aiden frowned. To come all the way over here this late, Angelina must have needed someone… and he wasn’t going to leave her there, not when she sounded so desperate and upset.
“Hold on, I’ll be right down,” he promised. He slid out of bed, slipped on his tennis shoes, and crept down the stairs. He peeked towards the sliding glass door in the living room that led to the backyard. Gunner’s dog bed was in-between him and salvation. He grit his jaw and tip-toed past his sleeping pup as quietly as he could. One of the floorboards creaked, but Gunner didn’t notice. He snorted in his sleep and rolled over, letting his tail flop over the side. Aiden exhaled in relief. Phew. Out the door.
Angelina was still beneath the bushes when he found her. There were tears running down her cheeks. Her short black hair was still tied back in a French braid from her recital, but it wasn’t as neat as it had been before. Wisps of it stuck out from the sides and her side-swept bangs were damp with perspiration. The satin black ribbon she’d tied it with was no longer in a bow; just two long strings hanging down, disheveled. She wrapped her arms around her legs, pulling her knees closer to her chest. She didn’t care that Aiden was wearing plaid blue pajama pants and a ratty old shirt. He was a sight for sore eyes – and considering how upset and flustered she was feeling, her eyes were definitely sore.
“Are you okay?” he whispered, plopping down on the grass beside her, letting the bushes form a protective canopy over their heads that hid them from the house’s darkened windows.
“He’s an asshole,” Angelina responded. Her voice was bitter and trembling. Aiden couldn’t tell if it was more mad or sad, but either way, he didn’t like to see her like this or hear her use swears. If she was swearing, there was usually a good reason, though, so he didn’t tell her not to. “He promised me he would come to my recital, but he didn’t,” she said. “He never does.”
Aiden could have tried to make it better, but he knew that nothing he said could do that. It wasn’t worth it to say it’s alright or make an excuse for Angelina’s father or tell her he was sorry.
So he didn’t. Just let her vent.
“He doesn’t even care about me,” she continued. “All he does is yell at me and tell me to go to my room. As if going to my room is a punishment! I’d rather be there than be around him.”
Aiden frowned. “That’s messed up. I would have come to see you sing.”
Angelina sighed. “Thanks, Aiden. I’m sorry to bug you right now. I’m just really mad. I miss the way things used to be.”
Aiden put his hand over hers and Angelina felt the apples of her cheeks burn. She’d gotten better at hiding the involuntary reaction around him, but then again, he didn’t always put his hand on hers. He did, however, have a secret weapon that he liked to employ often. Humor. And now was no exception.
“You know what I think we should do?” he suggested.
“We should race.”
Angelina stopped fuming, stopped crying, stopped everything, and stared at him like he had three heads. “What?”
“When I’m really mad about something, I run it off.”
“‘A,’ that’s because you’re fast. And ‘B,’ I just ran all the way here and it didn’t help, so why would that be different now?”
“Just trust me.”
Aiden stood from the ground and offered Angelina his hand, yanking her up as she took it. She shifted her weight to one hip and crossed her arms over her chest skeptically. “This isn’t going to work, Aiden. It won’t make my dad not a giant asshole.”
“No. He’ll still be an asshole. But it will be fun.”
Angelina’s head turned this way and that. “But it’s dark out here. Where would we even race to?”
“To the street light at the end of the road and back.”
She shot him an uncertain look, but he was already stretching. He stretched one quad, then the other. Put his hands to the ground and touched his toes. Tugged a little on the laces of his shoes. Then stood up, jumped up and down, and acted like he was psyching himself out. By the time he’d started lifting his legs like a marching soldier with an expression of over-determination on his face, hamming it up with the sole purpose of making her laugh, a small giggle escaped Angelina’s lips in spite of herself.
“What are you doing?”
“You have to warm up first. Come on, do it.”
“This is dumber than dumb, Aiden…”
“What, are you afraid of losing?”
Angelina rolled her eyes at him and mimicked his stretching. When he seemed satisfied enough that she wasn’t likely to pull something, he took her by the hand and led her around the house to the driveway. He glanced up at the windows of his house. Everyone was still asleep. The road ahead was dark and empty. The sound of chirping crickets filled the night sky. Down the sidewalk, the street light he had chosen as their checkpoint was illuminated like the lustrous orb of a second moon. Moths and flitting nighttime bugs congregated in its halo.
“Ready?” Aiden nudged Angelina with his shoulder.
She nodded and got into position, one leg in front of the other, her back hunched forward and arms at her sides. “Ready.”
“Okay then. Three, two… POW!” he made a noise like the crack of a gunshot and they were off. Angelina pumped her arms, let her legs fly. The breath caught in her lungs, her heart pounded in her throat. Aiden was ahead of her – of course he was ahead of her. He was fast, like some weird human-gazelle hybrid. His pajama pants whipped in the wind, two plaid blue curtains billowing around his legs. His arms thrust back and forth.
She wasn’t going to let him beat her. No damn way. She tried harder. Panted for breath. Felt the breeze whisk across her face, felt her messy braid loosen even further, and felt…
Not sad. Not happy, either. But relieved. Alive.
Thank goodness for those little things called endorphins.
She reached the street light right after he did. Ran into it and caught herself with her hands before whipping back around to make her way back towards the house, back towards the bushes. She pushed herself faster, harder. She could see Aiden’s surprise as she started to catch up to him. He slid through the backyard gate. She came in right after him. They laughed all the way to the bushes, feeling the excitement of competition, the release of adrenaline. Right when it looked like Aiden would be victorious, Angelina pushed in front of him with one hard burst of energy and raised her arms in the air, pumping her fists in victory.
“I did it!” she exclaimed. Then, jerking her gaze towards the house and back to him, a little quieter, “I did it! I beat you!”
Aiden didn’t care to be a sore loser. He beamed at her, then plopped back down on the ground, scooting under the bushes once more. She slid down beside him and rested on her stomach, kicking her legs in the air and smiling at him triumphantly.
“Did you see that, Aiden? I kicked your butt!”
“You got lucky,” he claimed. “So did it work?”
She stopped, paused, considered it, smiled again. “Yes.”
“I told you running always worked,” he smirked.
“I guess you’re not as dumb as you look then.”
“And I guess you’re not as wussy as you look.”
Angelina giggled softly and slapped at his shoulder.
“You’re a jerk.”
“But I’m your favorite jerk.”
“In your dreams.”
They both went quiet. Angelina rolled onto her back and looked at the stars dotting the velvety night sky above them. It was funny. Go into the city, and you wouldn’t see all of these stars. But here in the suburbs, there were so many of them. Angelina noticed that one of them was blinking at her. Not a star, an airplane. She watched it until it disappeared out of view.
“Do you see that up there?” Aiden asked, pointing up at the cosmos. “That thing that looks like a soup spoon?”
Angelina followed his finger to the heavens. “Yeah?”
“That’s the Big Dipper.”
“It’s so cool…”
“And if you look over there -“
“The Little Dipper, I guess?”
“Uh huh. And the North Star. That bright one.”
Angelina stared at the star, shining like a faraway beacon.
“My uncle who lives in Colorado told me that if you’re ever lost, just look for the North Star and you can find your way home again,” Aiden explained. “I know how to find Orion, too. It’s a constellation of a guy with a bow and arrow. You can find him by looking for the three stars that make up his belt. Once you know where they are, it’s really easy. I see him all the time now.”
Angelina was sure that a guy with a bow and arrow would be a pretty cool thing to find in the night sky, but she was much more fixated on the North Star. What was that, that Aiden had said? If you were ever lost, you should look for it and you would find your way again? She wasn’t sure if she needed a star for that.
When she felt lost, she just looked for him.
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