Chapter Thirteen: Black Eyes

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Freddie had only ever entered the County Hospital twice in her life. Once on the day of her birth. And second, on the day her father had died.

She'd only been five years old when Frank had passed away, but the beige linoleum floors and smell of rubbing alcohol had been forever branded onto her brain. She remembered her mother's swollen eyes, and the way Mom had hugged Freddie so tightly that Freddie had thought her ribs might break. She remembered Steve's pinched lips, and how he'd let Freddie have an entire Milky Way all to herself.

Above all, Freddie remembered the way the door into her father's room had loomed before her. Room 27 with the silver knob at Freddie's eye level. It had only opened twice the entire time she was there. She had never been allowed through.

She never got to say goodbye to Frank Carter.

They told her it was because it was too awful for a five-year-old to see, and she hadn't argued. The blanched faces on the doctors, the way they had rushed in and out with scrubs and scowls—she'd been scared of what she might find within that room.

Then at 12:46 (Freddie knew because there was a clock on the vending machine), her mom had come out and told her that her dad had passed away. The heart attack had been too strong; Frank hadn't been able to overcome it.

Freddie had tried to feel sad about this. It was what people seemed to expect from her. But she hadn't been sad. In the hospital or at the funeral a few days later. How could she be when she'd barely known the man? As far as she was concerned, Steve was her real dad—and Frank was just a guy in some photos, who occasionally remembered birthday cards and came by on Christmas mornings.

Twelve years since Freddie come to this hospital. The linoleum had since been updated to a cool gray, and they'd added fake plants that did give the space slightly higher appeal. The alcohol smell was the same, though.

Freddie went straight to the front desk and asked to see Mrs. Ferris. The nice old man told her to head to the third floor, so after an elevator ride and two hallways, Freddie found herself walking into a tiny waiting area.

It looked identical to the one from twelve years ago. So much so that her throat closed up, and her feet stopped working midstride.

Over there was the vending machine. Beside it was the muted TV with closed captioning. Even the mauve seating looked exactly as she remembered.

But no. This wasn't that waiting area. This wasn't even the same floor.

And now someone else was sauntering into the room from the opposite hallway—someone with tawny hair and a navy blazer.

He caught sight of Freddie right as she caught sight of him, and just as Freddie had done three seconds before, Theo Porter drew up short.

While Freddie found herself gasping—because Theo looked awful. His left eye was swollen and purple, his jaw was worse, and even from across the room, she thought she could make out individual finger marks around his neck.

Without thinking—and completely forgetting the promise she'd made to Divya less than an hour ago—Freddie crossed the room.

Theo didn't move. He just watched her approach, expression inscrutable. And the closer Freddie got, the worse he looked. Stitches cinched across his eyebrow. A gash marred his right cheek, and the top of his lip was busted too.

She stopped two paces before him and stared up. She itched to reach out, to touch. But her mind was smarter than her muscles. She balled her hands at her sides. "You look terrible," she said instead.

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