Mariana was asleep when Callie crept into their room, using the light of the moon filtering through the branches of the elm tree outside their window. She hesitated, glancing at the windowsill, but couldn’t force herself to look into the shadows for her own boogie man. Not tonight, when she was already feeling raw and vulnerable.
Pulling back the covers, she slipped into bed. The shower had done a lot to help relax her muscles, and sudden fatigue sapped her strength, closing her eyes almost against her will…
The soft plea woke Mariana out of her light doze. Her eyes shot open, adjusting after a moment to the darkness, offset by the full moon shining just beyond the tree outside their bedroom window.
“Please…don’t…” The broken moan had Mariana flipping the covers back and padding soundlessly over to Callie’s bed. The older girl thrashed and twisted, though her eyes were screwed tightly shut.
“Callie,” Mariana called gently. “Callie, wake up. You’re having a nightmare.” She continued to talk in a low, soothing tone, keeping her hands at her sides. She remembered being caught in the throes of night terrors like this, where any shadowy form bent over and reaching out to her took on the form of her nightmares.
After a few moments Callie slowly relaxed, slipping back into deeper slumber without ever opening her eyes. Mariana watched carefully before returning to her own bed where she dozed lightly once more.
She was up early and quietly reset her alarm to allow Callie to sleep in a bit longer, taking the time to hurry through her normal routine and get downstairs. She needed to talk to her moms before the rest of the house woke up.
Lena had convinced Mariana to start doing her hair the night before, so that all she had to do was shower and then could dress in her and Callie’s room without hogging the mirror in the bathroom. Callie, of course, was usually up and gone by then, either taking photos on her phone or playing her guitar quietly in the backyard as the world brightened around her to greet the day.
Brandon had made a habit of showering right after Callie—a guilty pleasure and relief, all in one. Not only was there still plenty of hot water, but the fresh, clean, slightly minty scent of her bath gel lingered tantalizingly in the air, so different from the more cloying smell of Talya’s heavy strawberry body spray and shampoo.
The knowledge that Callie had been standing where he was, rubbing lotion into her already silky skin, was both torment and reminder to the sixteen year old, but also helped him to keep his priorities –and thoughts—private and straight. And if the hot water edged towards cold at times when his thoughts and hands drifted, well, he had no one to blame but himself.
Callie was already outside, absently strumming her guitar when he found her. She sensed him draw near, but didn’t look up immediately as he came to a stop in front of her. As always, her heart sped up slightly as she considered him through her lashes. Long legged and lean, Brandon had a subtle, rugged beauty that drew the eye. With his unique coloring of dark hair and hazel-blue eyes, he was a stellar opposite to the pretty boy yet still rebel model look that Wyatt managed to pull off.
She realized, with a flash of sardonic amusement, that despite their differences and almost immediate intense dislike of each other, she and Talya certainly had a similar ‘type’; she had followed in the other girl’s dating footsteps almost exactly even before she had been aware of it.
Finished with her playing and thoughts, she lifted her head and raised her brows at him.
“Morning. I figured that you would be out here.” He said with a small smile. “How’d you sleep?”
“Not well.” She shrugged. “At least I didn’t wake Mariana.” She hesitated, then added, “Thanks for staying with me last night, and through…everything.”
“Glad I could help.” He answered simply, sitting down next to her on the bench, just out of touching range, and watching her face carefully. “What’s the next step?”
She swallowed, the muscles in her throat visually moving. “Stef is going to talk to Bill about getting Sarah out of the house, and also talk to her friend at the D.A.’s office. The first priority will be getting Sarah out, but without accusing Liam directly yet.” She shivered, her voice turning slightly brittle. “Um, she and Lena want us kids to stick together for a while—at least until he is formally charged and arrested.”
Brandon nodded—he had figured that his Moms would require something like that. They lapsed into a comfortable silence, broken only by Callie’s absent strumming and Brandon’s occasional gentle correction or suggestion about proper chords.
Meanwhile inside, Mariana hopped down the last step, pleased to find both moms already bustling around the kitchen.
“Morning, sweets. You’re up early,” Stef noted, kissing her on the cheek. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah. Just didn’t sleep that well.” She answered casually. “Umm… Is something going on with Callie?”
Both moms stopped in surprise, exchanging a look.
“Why? Did something happen?” Stef asked carefully. She and Lena both knew how much Callie valued her privacy, but if the usually self-absorbed Mariana had picked up on the tense vibes, then Callie’s scars were deeper than they suspected.
“She just had a really intense nightmare or something. About a guy named Lee, Leo…”
“Liam?” Lena prompted.
“Yeah! Liam. I tried to wake her up, but she never did.” Mariana frowned. “She eventually quieted down, but I’ve never heard anyone sound like that.” She bit her lip. “I just thought you might want to know.”
“Yes, we do. Thank you, sweetheart.” Lena gave her a hug. “It’s Callie’s story to tell, but Liam is very real. In fact, I want you kids to stick together for a while, okay? You and Jesus walk home with Callie and Brandon and Jude. Just until we get this all settled out.”
Mariana nodded reluctantly. She didn’t like it, but it wasn’t the first time that someone had targeted the kids in retribution for Stef arresting and convicting them for their crimes. Lena’s next words shattered that assumption.
“I know you have your group of friends at school, but I would appreciate it if you would make a bit more of an effort with Callie at lunch and in between classes. Wyatt’s a good kid, but…” Lena trailed off meaningfully and raised a brow.
Wyatt’s a good kid, but I don’t want my girls hanging around a guy who vandalizes his parents’ old house and supplies alcohol to teenagers… Mariana finished silently, just barely remembering not to roll her eyes.
“Just…keep an eye on out on things, okay? I know we all have been scattered, doing our own thing in the evening, but I think it’s time to start increasing the family together time.”
The teen pouted, then brightened.
“Family only time? So no Lexi or Talya?” She hoped Lena would assume that she just didn’t want to see her twin brother and her best friend sucking face, but truth be told, she had no desire to endure Talya’s condescending attitude either.
“Family only. Lexi needs to lay low for a bit anyway, and Brandon and Talya broke up, so she won’t be around either.” Lena replied as the others began filing into the kitchen. Stef waylaid Jesus and pulled him back out of the room with a silent look at her partner.“Mariana, will you and Jude please set the table? Thank you. Callie! Brandon! Come and eat before it gets cold—or Jesus eats it all!” Lena called, over Jesus’ laughing protest.
With a dramatic sigh that was only partly for show, Mariana complied, ruffling Jude’s hair affectionately before reaching up over his head to grab the plates. “Nice to know that I’m still taller than someone in this house again!” She teased. “I need to enjoy it while I can! Soon you’ll hit a growth spurt and develop a hollow leg like these two twerps.”
“Hey!” The equally indignant responses from both males in question had the moms chuckling.
“I’m serious! Where do you put it all?” She complained, warming to her topic—and audience—as she saw Callie coming back down the stairs, hands empty of her guitar.
The boys ignored her as they began to fill their plates.
“Maybe it’s all that empty space in their heads,” Mariana mused thoughtfully, winking at Callie, who stifled a wan smile but detoured around the table towards the coffee. “Callie, come and eat. I saved you a plate before the two barbarians managed to devour everything in sight.”
The brunette opened her mouth to protest but the younger girl fixed her with a look as the moms chimed in. Surprise turned to a rueful smile, and she sat in her spot between Jude and Jesus, and across from Brandon, whose gaze she met with a small smile before tucking into her breakfast. Jude was the first to finish eating, and headed back upstairs to grab his stuff, but Stef forestalled the older teens.