TWELVE

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If I had learned anything within the past ten years, it was that disappointment was a common part of life. I had always considered myself resilient to it, or maybe even invincible, because when things went south I had bounced back with ease. But right now I couldn't fathom the thought of anything ever being the same again.

Realizing my very own father was working with one of the largest drug cartels in the world put an awful taste in my mouth. He had left mom... left me and Anna for what? For drugs? Money and power? He was a liar. Nothing but another disappointment I could add to my ever growing collection. And I had no idea how to cope with it.

I could no longer look at the picture of him glaring at me from Chapman's screen. Standing abruptly, my legs carried me out of the office and down the hall to the elevator.

I ran but my mind was a blur. Where was I going? I finally found the elevator and let it close me into its confined space. My chest was heavy with an invisible weight I couldn't lift. Was I suffocating? Was I having a panic attack?

Tears rimmed my eyes while I rested my back against the cold wall of the elevator. My eyes stayed locked on the panel showing its decent to the ground level.

How could he do this to us? After all this time not once had I ever considered this a possibility. I wondered if mom knew. Had she kicked him out after discovering what he was involved in and decided it was best he never came back?

I stumbled out of the elevator and headed to the doors. I had no idea where I was heading but I was desperate to get as far away from this building as possible. The longer I stayed here the harder it was to breathe.

The California heat hugged me as I made it outside. The sun beat down on me but I still felt cold. Dead. God where should I go?

Before I could have a mental breakdown in the middle of the street I heard my name. "Alexa!"

I didn't turn around. I couldn't. Why had Melissa followed me? I didn't want to talk to her. I didn't want to talk to anyone. My legs continued to carry me down the street away from her. Away from the NIA and Chapman. Away from the horrible truth.

Then a soft hand grabbed my own. Melissa's eyes locked with mine as I came to a halt. I should yank away, push myself off of her and run in the opposite direction.

"Let me go Melissa," I ordered. My voice trembled. When had I become so fragile? A knife of pain slowly twisted into my gut. My knees buckled.

But she didn't let go. She shook her head and wrapped her arms around me. My head buried itself into her shoulder in response. She had opened the door to all of my emotions that I always kept shut under lock and key. That's when the tears came. They came hard like the first rain of Spring. Like a balloon bursting because it was too full. My arms held her for support, afraid that I would crumble to the ground if I let go.

Pain like this shouldn't exist. How would I tell Anna? How would I deal with this?

I soon realized what I was doing. Crying in the middle of Los Angeles while Melissa held me. This wasn't who I was.

I'm Alexa Cortez, I told myself. I'm stronger than this. I have to be.

I pulled away, Melissa's arms falling back to her sides. She just stared at me, unsure of what to do. "Alexa..."

"Leave me," I demanded, "I'm fine."

All she did was shake her head. Had she not heard me?

She stepped in closer. My eyes looked past her and at Derik and Willi who watched from afar. I was glad they didn't feel the need to join us.

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