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Twisted Love: Chapter 27

Ava

Every year,my family celebrated Thanksgiving with a Chinese twist. Instead of turkey and mashed potatoes, we ate roast duck, rice, dumplings, and fish cake soup. Food-wise, this year was the same, but without Josh, the dinner had been two hours of silence and awkwardness. Alex and my dad held a few brief conversations about football and work, and that was it. I think my dad was stressed about something at his office. He seemed more irritated than usual.

I also suspected my dad didn’t like Alex much. It was a surprise, considering he had a soft spot for smart, accomplished people, and Alex was as smart and accomplished as they came. I’d always chalked it up to the fact that Alex didn’t kiss ass as much as Chinese parents liked—he wasn’t one for flattering words. Plus, I was ninety percent sure my dad knew something was up with me and Alex, though he didn’t say anything.

“He knows,” I whispered when my dad excused himself to use the restroom. “I swear, he knows.”

“No, he doesn’t. Even if he does, he has no proof, and he won’t say anything to Josh,” Alex said. “Relax. It’s supposed to be your weekend off.”

“There’s no such thing as a weekend off for students.”

It may have been a holiday, but I had to study for finals and finish my fellowship application. It was all done except for a few paragraphs of my personal statement. I’d included the photos I took of Alex in my portfolio, though I haven’t told him yet. They were some of my best work, but I didn’t want to say anything until I heard from the WYP committee. I didn’t want to jinx it.

“It’s too bad we’re not sleeping in the same room.” Alex’s eyes glinted. “I could help relieve your stress.”

I laughed. “Is that all you think about?”

Except I wasn’t much better. I wanted to sleep in the same room as Alex too—especially here, in this house, where the nightmares were always darker. But since my dad didn’t know about our relationship, Alex was staying in the guest room.

“Only when I’m around you.” While my dad seemed more stressed, Alex was more relaxed these days. Smiling, laughing…he even made the occasional joke. I liked to think I had a part in loosening him up. I was still taking Krav Maga lessons with Ralph, and Alex was still giving me swim lessons—I panicked way less now than I did at the beginning—and after everything he’d helped me with, I wanted to help him too. He came off invincible and unflappable, but everybody, no matter how strong, needs a little care and attention of their own.

“Alex Volkov, when did you become so cheesy?” I teased.

He left out a playful growl and reached for me right as my father reentered the dining room. We sobered and maintained a safe distance between us the rest of the night, but my dad’s raised eyebrows confirmed my suspicions. He knew.

* * *

I couldn’t breathe. The hand tightened around my neck, and I thrashed my arms and legs, desperate to throw it off.

“Stop,” I tried to say. “Please stop.”

But I couldn’t. The hand was too tight.

Tears blurred my vision. Snot ran down my nose.

I was dying. Dying…dying…

I awoke with a gasp. My sweat-drenched sheets slid off my body, and I looked around wildly, certain I’d find an intruder in my room. Deep shadows skulked in the corners, and the eerie, pale blue hues of twilight filtered through the white lace curtains fluttering in the window.

But there was no intruder.

“It was a dream,” I whispered, my voice a gunshot in the silence. “It was just a dream.”

A different one from the ones I usually had. I wasn’t underwater. I didn’t scream. But I was terrified—more terrified than I had been in a long, long time.

Because my dreams were never just dreams—they were memories.

I always had worse “dreams” at home. Maybe it was because of the lake out back. It was a different lake than the one at my mother’s house before she died, but it was a lake, nonetheless.

I wished my family didn’t like lakes so much.

I glanced at my digital clock, and the icy fingers of dread scratched down my spine when I saw the time. 4:44 a.m. Again.

I wanted to run down the hall and throw myself into Alex’s arms. With him, I was safe. Even my nightmares had decreased in frequency and intensity since we’d started sleeping together every night—me tucked into his side, his arms wrapped around me in a protective embrace. While I wanted his insomnia cured, wanted him to get the peace and rest he deserved every night, a tiny, shameful part of me liked that he was awake to watch over me in the long hours between dusk and dawn.

He was probably awake, but I forced myself to stay put in case he wasn’t. I didn’t want to risk interrupting the two or three precious hours of sleep he got every night.

I crawled back beneath my covers and tried to catch more shuteye, but my skin itched, and something called to me beyond the walls. I resisted for as long as I could, until twilight melted into dawn.

7:02 a.m. A more respectable time to wake up than 4:44 a.m.

I changed into a sweatshirt and yoga pants, shoved my feet into fuzzy boots, and tip-toed through the silent house toward the backyard. The air smelled fresh and crisp, and a light fog hung over the lake, cloaking the scene in mystery.

The itching on my skin intensified. The call grew louder.

I walked toward the lake, my boots crunching over the tiny gravel stones of the barbecue area my dad had set up for summer get-togethers. Drops of dew dusted the empty wood furniture, and the charcoal grill looked sad and lonely, rendered useless until Memorial Day weekend.

My breaths formed tiny puffs in the air. It was colder than I’d expected, but I didn’t stop walking until I reached the edge of the lake—close enough to smell the damp earth beneath my feet.

It was the first time I remembered visiting the lake.

I’d shied away from it growing up, going only as far as the barbecue seating area. Even then, I’d get so nervous I would excuse myself halfway through parties and run to the bathroom to bring myself under control.

I wasn’t sure what compelled me to come out here this morning, but the lake’s siren song enveloped me, coaxing me closer—like it was trying to tell me a secret it didn’t want others to hear.

I was better with water now after all my lessons with Alex, but a tremor of unease still spiraled through me when I thought about the watery depths before me.

Deep breaths. You’re fine. You’re on solid ground. The lake will not rise up and drag you—

A car alarm blared in the distance, and I flinched, all relaxation techniques forgotten as my nightmare played out in broad daylight.

I picked up another stone from the ground. It was smooth and flat, the type that would make really pretty ripples. I drew my arm back to throw it, but I smelled something sweet and flowery—Mommy’s perfume—and got distracted.

My aim veered, and the stone thudded onto the ground, but I didn’t mind. Mommy was back! We could play now.

I turned, smiling a big gap-toothed smile, but I only made it halfway before something pushed me. I pitched forward—down, down, off the edge of the deck, my scream swallowed up by the water rushing toward my face.

“Ava?” My father’s worried voice penetrated my daze. “What are you doing out here?”

I forgot. He came out here every morning to exercise, rain or shine. He was religious about his morning routine.

I spun, trying to escape the images flashing through my brain, but they wouldn’t stop. Old nightmares. New revelations.

No. No, no, nononononono.

My father’s gold signet ring flashed in the light, and I saw his face.

And I screamed.


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