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Pen Your Pride


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They're following me again. I pick up the pace, taking another look over my shoulder. Yep, definitely them. High-end black car, dark tinted windows. I don't know what the hell they expect to learn from tailing me all over the damn place, but the Hunters have been following me off and on since the day I found out my brother was gone. Whether they're parked near my school, or slowly driving up and down my street, or even trailing me on days like these, when all I'm doing is picking up some groceries at the food dispensary a few blocks from home, they're always there. Watching. And that, like so many other things these days, is beyond annoying.

Stepping inside the dispensary, I begin looking for all the ingredients we need to make Mom's famous lasagna. It'll be another first without Travis.

Not going there. 

Tomatoes, garlic, onion...

They have mozzarella and ricotta this time, score.

We still have some eggs at home, basil and oregano, too—Mom is little miss botanist, great at growing her own herbs to spice up some of the otherwise bland food options we're given sometimes...

Looks like being suspended is going to pay off, too. They have boxed noodles. Packaged items go pretty quickly, so by the time Mom and I usually get here, after school or after work, they're gone. I hesitate at throwing them in. Sometimes making them from scratch can be pretty therapeutic.

Eh, whatever.

I toss them in, quickly grab a few extras we might need, and head to the register. The older woman takes her time punching in my items and bagging them before taking my card to scan through her reader.

"All good to go, sweetie," she says, handing me back the card. 

"Thank you." I look down at the receipt. "Wait. Was there another food cut or something?"

"Not that I know of."

I look at the receipt again, double checking. No way is that right. $1.62 left? "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. They always let us know beforehand. Even before they tell you, unfortunately."

"Alright...thanks." I hug the brown paper bag full of groceries to my chest, walking out the door. I've done all our shopping the last few weeks, and the amount is wrong. I know it.

"Honey, I'm home!" Mom's greeting floats through the front door.

"In here!" I call out from the kitchen, continuing to mix the cheese, eggs, salt and pepper in a bowl.

"Oh, you started without me."

"Yeah, sorry, was just twiddling my thumbs like an idiot, so I thought, why not."

"Gracie," Mom warns.

"What?" I throw over my shoulder.

"You know what," she retorts.

"Fine," I roll my eyes, dragging out the word. "I was twiddling my thumbs, not like an idiot."

"That's better. Smartass." Mom's laughter follows her up the stairs. "Just gonna go freshen up! The Ryans should be here in a bit!"

"Okay," I answer the empty room.

The Ryans...

Not gonna lie, I've been avoiding them. I love them like family, but it's too hard.

Mrs. Ryan and I have always been pretty close, and when Maddie ran, I'd go over there at least once a week, just to keep her company. Even if all we did was sit in silence, I wanted to be there for her like she'd always been there for me when Mom couldn't be. She'd lost her daughter and was so lost in her own misery that it was never about me, it was about her, and helping her cope. But when Travis disappeared too, it was too much. Her questions, her concern, her need for me to talk about how I was feeling. I couldn't do it.

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