Chapter One

Sunday, December 31st

 “Okay, Mom. Yeah, yeah, I promise.” Patrick glanced at the clock. It was almost nine, and he was late.
I moved out to get away from this.
 With a final round of goodbyes, Patrick snapped the phone closed and jammed it in his pocket. True, it was a cell phone, it traveled, but what twenty-five-year-old wanted to be seen talking to his mother? Not that he didn’t feel bad for her. He was the only one she had. His dad split when he was a kid, and his younger brother was nowhere to be found.
Younger brother. It was kind of funny. When he thought of Michael as a “younger brother”, he pictured the six-year-old version with a dirty face and a skinned knee. The current Michael was twenty-two with long hair and a bad attitude.
 And he was missing.
 He’d disappeared six months ago. He’d been mowing lawns for some rich guy, or so he’d said. Patrick’s memory was blurry, but he remembered his brother’s story about a wild sex party followed by an insane plan to rob his employers. When Patrick told him how stupid it was, he’d thought that was the end, but a few days later Michael stomped out in the middle of the night, taking their mother’s gun and leaving a pair of bloody jeans in the hamper. They’d filed a missing person’s report, given the cops photos of Michael and info on his car, but nothing came of it. Not that the cops cared. Mikey was just a Mullens. Goodbye and good riddance.
 A little stab of guilt shot through Patrick as he tugged his clothes smooth. He hadn’t told the cops Michael’s crazy story, or his plan, because he was pretty sure it was all B.S. No rich guy was going to have a mansion of playboy bunnies in rural Ohio, especially not a secret mansion. It was more likely Mikey was selling drugs, got tired of being in the lower ranks, and wanted more money. It was an even better bet he’d gotten involved in a fight with them—hence the bloody jeans and the missing gun. They’d probably killed him over it, and dumped both his body and his car where it would never be found.
 That, or his robbery plan worked and he was living the high life in Mexico.
 The second was the story Patrick liked to believe because, in it, his hiding the jeans from his mom, convincing her she’d lost the gun ages ago, and not telling the cops everything, didn’t hurt—didn’t stop them from discovering the truth. Just the opposite; it helped his brother flee from justice.
Right, because I’m so goddamn helpful.
 Patrick pushed the thoughts aside and checked himself in the mirror. He finger-combed his messy blond hair. Some guys spent a lot of time to achieve the same casual-just-out-of-bed look that came naturally to him. In fact, his hair wouldn’t do anything else.
 He debated, then traced eyeliner around his eyes. A girl had once told him it made the blue of his irises “pop”. He could only assume that was a good thing, and he needed something good. Hell, he could even use a girl.
 There should be a few at the party. What was New Year’s Eve without them? Though they were getting old enough he’d have to start calling them women soon. That felt weird, like he was talking about his mother and her friends.
 With the mysterious word “women” went the word “men”. Sure, they threw it around since they were twelve, but to actually think in those terms—man, woman—was some sort of admission Patrick wasn’t ready for yet. It was like saying “I’m an adult and this is my adult life”. He hoped to hell this wasn’t really it. He had plans; plans that involved a house, a job, a wife, and a regular family. He just wasn’t sure how to get there.
 Final touches done, he grabbed his leather jacket and a six pack, and bounced out the door. After a few steps he remembered the lock, so he backtracked.
You need to remember this shit. Mom’s not here to do it for you. How the fuck is it gonna look if someone steals your stuff and you’ve only had the place two months?
 He found his friend Anthony downstairs in the miniature lobby. With caramel colored skin and dark eyes, his naturally curly hair was straightened and gelled to messy perfection. A stud glittered in his nose, and his tight jeans hung just low enough without showing his ass. Neither black nor white, with an attempt to look like something from MTV, Anthony Clearfield fit into small town Ohio as well as Patrick did. Sometimes he wondered why Anthony didn’t move; why they both didn’t move.
 “Hey man, about time.”
 Patrick compulsively checked his mailbox; nothing. “Sorry, my mom was on the phone, being all weepy and shit.”
 Anthony smirked and moved for the heavy doors that led outside. “She hittin’ the bottle a little early?”
 “Pretty much.”
 The pair hurried out to Anthony’s waiting car. Patrick slouched into the passenger seat and chaffed his hands in front of the heater vents. “Who’s gonna be there?”
 “Twila is bringing some of her friends, and of course Mark and Hailey.”
 “And that dick, Christenson?” Patrick asked with no enthusiasm.
 “Of course, he’s Hailey’s brother. You two should get over that shit. It was five years ago.”
 Patrick grunted. “Tell him that.” He tapped out a silent beat on his knees. “Churo gonna be there?”
 “Nah, he’s hanging out in Dunwick with the losers.” Anthony’s grin took the sting from the insult. “So, New Year’s. What’s your resolution?”
 Resolutions. Goals. They were all the same thing. Patrick had worked at the gas station for six months. If he didn’t miss any more days he might get promoted to shift manager. Then maybe manager. By then he’d have a car and, if he was lucky, a girl to ride in it. He just needed to take things seriously this time and not blow up…
 Anthony interrupted his thoughts. “Earth to Pat! Your res-oh-loo-tions.”
 He was afraid to mention his plans out loud, as if it might curse him, so he muttered, “I don’t know. You?”
 “I’ve been thinking about calling my cousin, down in Texas. Ray. You remember him? He came up that summer in sixth grade. Anyway, he’s got a locksmith business and called Mom, wanting me to come down and join him.”
 “You’re really thinking about it?” Maybe Anthony had finally wised up.
 “I don’t know. I mean, Texas? It’s fucking hot down there. Besides, I got it made here.” Anthony broke into laughter.
 Patrick scoffed and shook his head. He hoped Anthony was joking.
 They parked the car near a small white house and climbed out. They were barely on the porch, offerings of alcohol in their hands, before the door opened. Mark greeted them with a fake-friendly smile. “Hey, hey! Look who it is! Come on in.” He moved aside so they could enter. “I don’t think you’ve been here since we painted our living room.”
 The emphasis on the word “our” made Patrick’s teeth grind.
 “Hailey picked out the color. What do I know about decorating, huh?” Mark laughed his fake horse laugh and Patrick’s jaw tightened.
 Anthony nodded to a wall. “Yeah, looks cool, man. Where do we put the booze?”
 “In the kitchen.” Mark led them through the living room, past the handful of people who’d gathered there. A couple of them nodded as they passed.
 “Baby!” Anthony abandoned Patrick for the pretty redhead leaning on the kitchen counter. Their hug melted into the kind of kiss that made Patrick look away.
 The girls around them giggled and Mark cooed, “Ah, look at the lovebirds. They’re still in the honeymoon phase.”
Like you know shit about a honeymoon phase, you jackass.
 Mark stuffed Patrick’s beer in the fridge and handed him back a cold one. That’s when Hailey swept into the room.
 Patrick gave her a stiff nod and looked away, but she was burned into his eyes, more memory than reality. Brown hair skimmed her shoulders and freckles kissed her pale cheeks. Not too thin, but not thick, with rounded hips, decent breasts, and under her jeans a pair of long tanned legs.
 Though he should be over her by now, the girl was his kryptonite. She’d hung on the edge of his circle in high school—the pretty girl slumming it with the low-lifes. They’d even dated during her junior year, though he was done with school by then. He always wondered if that was why it hadn’t worked out; while she was worrying about pimples and grades, he was trying to help his mom cover bills. After they broke up, he’d been with her a couple of times , but they’d never clicked again. Three years ago, she started dating his friend Mark. Patrick wasn’t a complete asshole and, once a girl belonged to a friend, that meant hands off. The funny thing was, as the years passed, he liked Mark less and less, and sometimes wondered why he was still sticking to it.
  “Hi, Pat.”
 He glanced back to her, to see a smile that didn’t seem genuine. “Hey.”
 “It’s about time you came to one of our parties. Mark was starting to think you didn’t like him.”
 Mark moved to slip an arm around her. “No, I wasn’t. I know he’s been busy. And we’ve been busy.” He nibbled her neck, but instead of leaning into it, she grimaced and pulled away.
 Patrick wanted to be happy for them —or had wanted to at one time. Now he just wanted to go home. Why the fuck did I let Anthony talk me into this?
 As though the thought was a psychic message, Anthony disentangled himself from his girlfriend to clap Patrick on the back. “Come on. Unless you guys wanna hang out in the kitchen all night?”
 In the living room, a gaggle of girls zoomed through an MP3 player like pros. It took half an hour before they lost interest in playing DJ.
 “Thank God,” Anthony muttered over his third beer. “That dance shit was giving me a headache.”
 Patrick took a hit from the joint and handed it to the blonde girl next to him. The smoke came out a moment later and he coughed. “You’re not supposed to get a headache until tomorrow.”
 “Exactly, man. Exactly. You wanna get that?”
 “Get what?” Patrick looked at the blonde girl and stifled a giggle. He’d be happy to get that, all right.
 “The music man. Plug in your phone —oh fuck. I forgot you have that ancient piece of crap.”
 “My phone’s fine. It calls people.”
 “Yeah, but it don’t do nothin’ else. Never mind. I got this.” Anthony peeled Twila off his lap and moved to the stereo.
 Patrick finished the last of his beer and stood up. The room tilted and he grinned.
 “Where you going?” The girl next to him looked up with luminous eyes.
 He rattled the bottle. “To get another beer. You want one?”
 “Yeah.” She smiled, and he gave her a wink before he stumbled into the kitchen. He pulled a beer from the fridge and popped the top when the backdoor opened and Hailey walked in.
 “Look Harold, mind your own fucking business, all right?”
 Followed by her brother, Christenson. The Prick.
 “This is my business.”
 “No it’s not! It’s my life! Just —fuck you!” Hailey slammed back outside and left her brother in the kitchen.
 “No, fuck you!” he shouted. Then he turned and saw Patrick. “What’re you lookin’ at?”
 Patrick snickered. Once the football star, Harold Christenson had gone on to do nothing with his life. A dead end job, a used car, and an empty bed were all the prick had. Funny he still thought he was hot shit. “I’m lookin’ at a big dick named Harold.”
 Christenson growled and stepped closer. His nostrils flared, and his fists were like hams at his sides. “You think you’re funny, Mullens? You’re a worthless piece of shit.”
 “Yeah,” Patrick agreed gleefully. “But shit always floats to the top while losers like you sink right to the bottom.” He illustrated it with his hand and a bubbling noise.
 Christenson roared and would have punched Patrick if Mark hadn’t walked in. Indecision played on the big guy’s face, then he spun on the newcomer. “You —me —now!”
 Mark looked suitably horrified. Patrick suppressed a giggle and escaped through the nearest door, into the scraggly backyard. The back steps were cinder blocks and he tripped down them. He caught his balance at the bottom and started to crunch through the frozen grass, toward the front of the house, when he heard a sob.
 He blinked in the direction of the sound. Hailey leaned against the back fence, huddled in her sweater. The street lights turned the tears on her cheeks to jewels and his chest tightened.
Aw fuck.
 This was one of those moments when he should walk away. Instead, he walked toward her.
 “Hey, Hailey. You okay?”
 She started, then relaxed. “Oh, hey, Pat. Yeah, I’m fine.” She swiped the evidence from her cheeks and gave him a weak smile. “Having fun?”
 “Eh.” He shrugged his shoulders and moved to stand next to her. An alley ran behind the fence, graveled with rocks and the odd bit of trash. “Whatcha’ looking at?”
 She sighed and turned back to the view. “My life mainly.”
 Alarm bells rang in Patrick’s head, but it was too late. “What about it?”
 “I’m pregnant.”
 Patrick struggled to find a word—any word. The only one that presented itself was, “What?”
 Her shoulders sagged. “Yeah, that’s what I said.” She closed her eyes. “It isn’t Mark’s.”
 Patrick didn’t want to hear this. Didn’t want to think he’d kept his hands to himself, respected her fucking relationship, while some other jackass hadn’t. “Whose is it?” Then he realized he didn’t really want to know. He didn’t want involved with it.
  “What did Mark say?”
 “He doesn’t know yet. No one does.” She broke into a nervous smile. “Except you, I guess.”
 Though he understood conception, the ability to know who the father was confused him. “How do you know it’s not his?”
 “The timing is all wrong. Mark and I… it’s been a minute. It’s at least two months – this is the second period I’ve missed – and two months ago, Mark was still in Colorado, finishing his five month intern thing. He just got back six weeks ago.”
 Patrick couldn’t find a flaw in the logic. “And you’re sure that you’re…?”
 “Yeah. I took the test today. God. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
 “I guess you’re going to have a baby.”
 She gave a sad sigh. “Yeah. I guess.” She stared out into the distance. “I thought about getting rid of it, you know? But I don’t think I could kill it. I mean I don’t want a baby—God, I don’t want a baby—but I don’t think I could go that far. I’ve heard it haunts you forever.”
 He had no wisdom to share, so he mumbled, “Yeah, I could see that.”
 “And it’s not the baby’s fault. I don’t want to kill it because I messed up. Shit. I should probably go to the doctor.” She dabbed her eyes. “But I don’t know how to go without Mark knowing.” She turned to Patrick. “Do I look like I’m gaining weight?”
 He let his eyes run up and down her body; over her rounded breasts, down to her hips, then the length of her legs, and up again, to her worried face. “I don’t know.”
 “I am.” She leaned on the fence again. “My clothes barely fit and my bras are too small. God. He’s gonna notice.”
 “Eventually,” Patrick agreed. Then again, Mark might not. Hell, she could give birth in the chair next to him as long as football or one of those dumb car shows were on TV.
 She fell into a pensive silence, only to break it with, “Man, it’s cold.”
 As if her words turned on his awareness, he noticed she was shivering. With a silent groan, he plucked his coat off and dropped it over her shoulders.
 “Thanks. You always were sweet, Pat.” She gazed at the sky wistfully. “Sometimes I wonder why we broke up.”
 He reached for a cigarette, but they were in his coat pocket. With nothing else to do, he dropped his hands. He didn’t want to have this conversation; didn’t want to think about it. “I don’t know. It was your idea.”
 She sighed. “I was stupid. I’m always stupid.” She turned her face to his, suddenly too close. He could feel her warm breath on his winter chilled skin, see the tears that sparkled in her eyes, see where her lipstick crinkled at the corners of her mouth…
 She kissed him. She tasted like cherries and alcohol. Before his foggy brain processed the action, his lips were already participating.
 “What the fuck?”
 The kiss broke and Patrick swiveled his head in time to see Christenson and Mark storming toward him. He was conscious of a vague watery thought.
Oh shit.
 The punch landed like a ton of bricks. Patrick stumbled backwards and landed on the fence. His knees crumpled at the impact and he dropped to the ground. Something warm and wet ran down his face and he licked it experimentally. Salty.
 “What in the fuck do you think you’re doing, Mullens?” Christenson screamed. He stood over Patrick swinging his ham hock fists. “I’m gonna kill you, you slimy little bitch. I told you before to stay the fuck away from my sister!”
 Mark stood behind him, his outraged eyes wide as they swiveled from Patrick to Hailey. She bit her lip and shrank back, conspicuously silent.
 Patrick climbed sloppily to his feet. He swiped the blood from his face and wiped it on his jeans. He gave Hailey one more chance to say something, one more chance to tell them what happened.
 She said nothing.
 “Fuck this.” He pushed himself off of the fence and stood, swaying before her furious brother. Bitterness and anger crashed through him. That was just like Hailey to leave him to shoulder the blame. It was just like everyone. He was sick of it. Sick of taking the blame for everyone else’s bullshit. Sick of being their fucking whipping boy.
 “You know what, Christenson, you tell your sister to stay away from me.” From the corner of his eye he saw Hailey flinch and it filled him with —what? Satisfaction? —so he added, “I’ve already been there once and I ain’t going there again. It wasn’t worth it the first time.”
 Mark shouted something, but it was lost under the sound of Christenson’s fist slamming into Patrick’s stomach. He fell backwards, bent double, and landed on his knees, all the air gone from his lungs. Christenson made to swing again, but Anthony jumped in the way.
 “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
 “Get out of the way or I’ll fuck you up, you little piss-”
 Anthony wielded his cell phone like a weapon. “And I’ll call the cops, you fucking jackass. So back the fuck off.”
 Christenson looked ready to chance it, but Mark snarled, “Then you better get him outta here! Both of you. Get out of here and don’t ever come back!” He jerked the coat off of Hailey’s shoulders and threw it to the ground, then dragged her toward the house. “You’ve got five minutes, then I’m calling the cops!”
 Christenson growled. “The next time I see you, I’m gonna rip your head off, Mullens!” Then he turned on his heel and stormed toward Mark. “Get your hands off of her!”
 Anthony knelt next to Patrick. “Man, what did you do?”
 He gasped out the first words that came to mind, “Hailey’s pregnant.”
 “What the fuck? Is it yours?”
 Patrick shook his head. “No. But it ain’t – ain’t Mark’s.” He coughed and used Anthony to climb to his feet. “She fucking kissed me. That’s when dipshit came out.”
 Anthony cleared his throat. “Fuck this party. It’s lame anyway, not really where I want to be at midnight. We can go hang at Twila’s.”
 Patrick didn’t argue.
 Midnight found Patrick sprawled on the floor of Twila’s front room. He was vaguely aware of an empty bottle near his head and a pair of lips kissing their way across his jaw and down his throat. He focused on the tangle of dark hair and recognized one of Twila’s friends. Or maybe it was her roommate’s friend. It didn’t matter. When he closed his eyes they were all the same.
 And none of them were Hailey.

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