• • S E V E N • •

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THE NEXT FEW days passed remarkably quietly. I did my best to ignore thoughts about Joshua and that Friday night. There were hours when I could convince myself none of it had even happened. It had all been some strange, disjointed nightmare brought on by a minor head injury and way too much to drink.

Those hours always ended, however—usually when I went to move or lift anything and my entire body ached, or when I washed my hands and the cuts on my palms stung in the cool water dripping out of the faucet.

I tried not to think about Lydia either. I knew I should head to her place and pick up my things at some point, but the idea of doing that made it all seem too final. I was afraid to face her parents—they'd never liked me to begin with (probably for good reason)—but I was more afraid of facing her room, empty of all her things. Lydia and I had been together since our sophomore year of high school. Whether I'd loved her or not was beside the point. She'd been my girlfriend for nearly a third of my life. My entire adult life at that—as short as that was—and I wasn't quite sure who that made me without her.

I subconsciously decided that I didn't really need any of my belongings that were in her room anyway. None of them were necessities. They were all just stuff—mementos and trinkets. The memories were strong enough without the physical reminders.

I continued working nights at the gas station. They were dark, cold nights. Windy nights—all of them.

The wind didn't stop.

Trees started coming down more and more frequently. Usually it was in the night—I think the wind was stronger then—but sometimes during the day too. Groans like screams came from the streets every time one of them finally gave up a limb. We lost power one evening when a thick branch landed across a power line. Took them twelve hours to get it back up and working again.

Spring didn't come. The only things that grew in Millstone were "For Sale" signs in front of houses as one by one people quietly disappeared. March was slowly fading into April, but the weather didn't change. Lows stayed right around freezing every night, and we were lucky if highs reached fifty during the day. It was like time had frozen over in Millstone. Unfortunately, it happened to pick a cold and windy day on which to do it.

• • •

I stood outside the gas station, facing the wall along the side of the building and trying to block the wind with my body so I could get my lighter to work. Every time I got a flicker, the wind snuffed it out. Finally, cupping my hands around it and clicking the ignition until my thumb burned, the flame stayed up long enough for me to light my cigarette.

As I breathed in hot smoke, a growl roared behind me, and then a nasty snapping bark.

Cigarette in mouth, I spun around on my heels.

His truck was there.

I hadn't seen Joshua in a week and a half... since that night. I figured he'd probably been avoiding confronting me, but when you need gas, you need gas, and there he was—parked right in front of the pump, headlights on, illuminating the dark night in front of him. The two dogs stood in the back, up on their hind legs with their paws on the edge of the bed growling at me. Behind them, the green and blue triangular flags that hung at the front of the station screamed in the wind. It relentlessly pulled them towards the intersection, trying to shear them from the wires.

I warily approached the driver's side window, taking a drag from my cigarette.

"Fill it up with diesel," Joshua said in a low, gruff voice as he lowered the window enough to slide his card out. He stared straight ahead, out the windshield, avoiding eye contact.

So this was how we were going to play it. Memory chicken... Joshua didn't think I remembered anything, and he was going to pretend like that night he picked me up at the bar never even happened.

I took his card.

"What kind of dogs are they?" I asked as I placed the nozzle in the truck. I knew the answer—I could tell from looking at them—but I was mostly trying to get Joshua to look at me so I could maybe get some sort of hint out of his eyes.

"Pit bull mixes."

Pit bull mixes my ass. I knew damn well those weren't pit-bull mixes. Maybe a mix of two different pit-bulls. The breed was illegal in Millstone, so every pit-bull had a little bit of something else in 'em... or at least on paper.

I glared at one of the dogs, and it snarled back, baring its teeth.

I wandered behind the truck, and the dogs' gazes followed me like they were guarding something, or maybe more like I was their next meal. I saw their leashes were firmly secured to the truck tie-down, so I snuck a peek into the bed.

No tarp. No crates.

Damn.

I walked back around to the gas pump. "You move a lot of stuff with this truck?" I asked Joshua. "Or just the dogs?"

"It's a work truck," he responded vaguely, still avoiding looking at me.

I leaned back against his vehicle, purposefully invading his space. "Could fit a lot back there, I bet." I was really asking for trouble. I think I was mostly upset he'd intimidated and taken advantage of me before. My pride was wounded, and so now I wanted to get an upper hand on Joshua, subtly let him know that I knew something. Maybe not let him know how much I really knew... because it wasn't a lot.

Either way, Joshua kept his poker face. "Farm work," he clarified, which didn't make complete sense in response to my most recent remark.

The gas gage clicked off. I removed the nozzle from the truck and hung it up on the pump.

"You shouldn't smoke, kid," Joshua told me as I handed him his credit card and took a drag. "It's dangerous."

I rolled my eyes and took the cigarette out of my mouth, exhaling a grey cloud that smoldered in the air for half a second before the wind swiftly carried it away. "I know it isn't good for me. I'm an adult. I'll make my own decisions."

"I don't give a shit about your health." Joshua's brown eyes met mine, and I couldn't help but notice the dark, heavy bags under them. Seemed like he hadn't slept in days. "But you are a fucking idiot. I just watched you light up barely thirty feet from these pumps. You'll blow yourself up, all these gasoline fumes in the air."

"I've done this a hundred times before," I told him. "Never been a problem. Besides, it's windy out. Spreads the fumes away."

"You'd be surprised what wind can spread, Harper." He scowled. "All it takes is one slip up," he said as he started the engine, "to make a huge, fucking mess." He narrowed his eyes at me before putting the truck in drive. "Don't go looking for trouble, boy."

And then the wheels squealed, and he sped away.

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