No other choice. She picked up the phone and powered it off. She resumed her position and pulled the sheet over her head with nowhere she had to be, and nothing she really had to do. Her mind drifted between a consciousness and sleep. A gray, misty land inhabited by bare skeleton trees and whispering voices of people she couldn’t see
Some of the voices became louder and familiar. Her father spat the phrase carved into her heart. “If you hadn’t been born, then I would never have stayed with your mother and subjected myself to hell on earth.”
A feminine voice, less familiar, but it stirred up memories from high school. “Stella ruined my life."
How did she do that? She couldn’t quite remember. The girl’s face flickered in and out of focus like a broken video camera. Something about her going out with Jacob whom the girl liked. Jacob something. Nothing ever came of it. She couldn’t remember Jacob being that great anyhow.
“I could have won that full ride scholarship if it hadn’t been for Stella snatching it away from me. Administrators probably awarded it to her because they felt sorry for her with her crazy ass parents.” She recognized the voice of one of her high school classmates, Tricia, an ambitious overachiever whose academic zeal suffered when she started dating the soccer captain.
Did the school administrators feel sorry for her? Did she receive the scholarship because her parents insisted on a public airing of their marital troubles? Tricia sounded like she hated her. She thought they were friends, not good friends, but school friends at least.
All she ever did was cause heartache. A coldness settled on her. Her hand searched for the blanket as she kept her eyes tightly closed. No reason to look, she knew what she’d see, a world that had suddenly turned against her. The blanket provided an additional barrier between her and the outside.
Eventually, she found herself back in the land of fog wandering between skeleton trees. Something large hung from a tree, twisting from a rope.
The blurred shape drew her while something inside her urged her to go another way. She knew she should, but her feet kept moving forward as if she’d surrendered all control of her body.
Her heartbeat lunged from its slow, steady space to an all-out run, but her feet didn’t comply. She shuffled toward the swinging object. Her body responded similarly to a senior citizen as opposed to someone who hadn’t reached her twentieth birthday. Inhaling deeply, she drew on her meditative practice to slow her heart and ease her building anxiety. It didn’t help.
Her inability to draw a deep breath left her panting like a dog. As she drew closer to the tree, the shape faded, and then sharpened, startling her with the image of a hanged man. The wind tussled with the body, gradually turning it. Stella recognized the long, lanky body and the dark hair before the final twist of the rope revealed the face. The skin above the tight noose swelled due to the restricted blood flow, turning a bruised reddish purple.
The scream never came. Unable to push it past her panting, it lodged in her throat, making the simple act of taking in oxygen even more problematic. The grotesque image of her friend hanging held her gaze. His eyes opened, causing her to stumble back a few steps, tripping over a tree root and landing on her butt. Her hands took the brunt of her fall. Her attention stayed on Mitch’s head. His lips moved.
“Stella, you did this!”
Her hand flew up to her chest, holding in a heart that threatened to beat out of her chest. “How did I do this? I care about you. I never want anything bad to happen to you.”
“Care! Does this look like the act of a caring friend? You had the ability to stop Cam, but you chose not to. The only person you care about is yourself.”
Oh, she had contemplated doing nothing; certain Cam’s threats meant nothing. Who knew it’d come to this. “I don’t understand. Cam only threatened your scholarship.”
“My scholarship, my reputation, my credibility, my only chance to get ahead. Sure, I’ve done things I’ve regretted, but it looked like I would finally triumph over them until you came along disturbing everything I’d built with your desire to have every guy at your feet.”
“It wasn’t like that.” How could she make him understand? His eyes closed, and the wind twisted the rope, turning him away from her.