Ryan was late; and in the eight years I had known him, Ryan had never been late. I knew the old axiom—there’s a first time for everything; but my heart sped in time with my breathing and my muscles began to twitch with my nerves. If he wasn’t here already, there was a very good reason why.
My phone buzzed, making me jump like a paranoid criminal. I wasn’t a criminal, though; far from it, in fact. At fourteen years old, the most dangerous thing I had ever done involved a temporary tattoo in the shape of an orchid and a pair of clip-on earrings. Don’t ask.
The message on the screen was typical Ryan; short and to the point.
I closed the phone with a smile and fidgeted with the hem of my shirt, trying desperately to look my best. It was a little hard to do given the circumstances, but I did what I could. Sneaking out of my room in the middle of the night for a clandestine meeting was not what I had in mind when I crawled into bed tonight. As much as I loved being around Ryan, and lately I was beginning to think I loved it more than I should, I would have preferred to be wrapped in the warmth of my covers instead of standing out here alone in the dark.
But Ryan had asked, nearly begged really, for me to meet him at midnight at the bridge where we first met. I couldn’t remember that meeting exactly, though I was six years old at the time, but this bridge always held a special place in my heart.
But, of course, that was another problem; my heart, and the amount of space Ryan had begun to occupy within it.
Two minutes. That’s what he had said, but my phone said at least five minutes had passed since his message. Shivering, I stuffed my phone back in my pocket. I didn’t want him to find me checking it when he showed up.
What could possibly be taking him so long, and why did he want me to meet him at the bridge? And, most importantly, why couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?
A twig snapped behind me and I turned, already expecting to see an apologetic look on Ryan’s face. He knew I hated to be kept waiting. He knew I hated being outside at night. I really hoped whatever he had to show me was important enough to subject me to this torture.
“Finally,” I sighed, stuffing my hands in my pockets. “I thought you said you’d only be two minutes?”
Only, when I looked up at the figure before me, it wasn’t Ryan’s face I saw.
Beneath my fingers, my phone buzzed, vibrating against my palm. If I could have moved, I would have pulled it out to check whatever message Ryan had sent now.
“Sorry,” I said quickly. “I thought you were someone else.”
Taking a deep breath, I slowly stepped back from the man. He was easily six feet tall with closely cropped hair and a scar on his cheek. I could see it in the light of the moon. It ran the length of his face from his left eyebrow down to his chin.
“That’s okay,” he said, almost soothingly. “I am someone else.”
I shrugged my shoulders noncommittally, hoping to end the conversation with the gesture alone. My fingers curled around the phone in my pocket, my feet shuffling against the ground as I moved away from the man. It wasn’t that he looked mean, really. But there was something about him, something . . . dark.
When I had five feet between us, I pulled my phone from my pocket and opened it to check the message Ryan had sent.
My fingers bumbled on the buttons, trying to dial his number. The cold, combined with my fear, made me shiver, and I hit the wrong button three times. Sighing, I held my breath and tried again. The call connected.
“Hey,” Ryan said. “Sorry, I’m on my way. I swear.”
“I’m going home,” I said quickly, before he could say anything else.
“Clare, wait. I swear, I’m one minute away.” His voice sounded desperate, pleading. It reminded me of the time when we were eight and he had found a baby owl hiding the hollow of a tree; a baby owl he was sure would die if we didn’t help it. He’d grabbed my hand and pulled me through the woods behind our house until we reached the creek. We trudged through the water, ruining the shoes my mother had just given me, but I never turned down an adventure; especially one with Ryan. When we stopped at the tree, Ryan looked down at the owl, then met my eyes with this sorrowful desperation, like I was his last hope in the world.
That same desperation was passing through the phone now.
“Clare, really, I can see you from here,” he said through the phone.
“Where are you?”
“Turn to your left.”
Following his directions, I glanced over my shoulder and saw him standing near the edge of the park. The bridge was to his right. I was surprised at how far I’d walked from the bridge. Ryan raised a hand and waved at me.
“See,” he said.
It was weird to see him from across the park and hear his voice in my ear. I nodded and waved back.
“What took you so long?” I asked.
I could see him open his mouth to answer, then he closed it. He leaned forward, like he was straining to see something.
“Clare?” he asked tentatively.
“Yeah, what is it?”
“Who is that behind you?”
Slowly, clutching the phone like a vise, I turned to see who Ryan could have been talking about. The man with the scar was standing one foot from me, watching me carefully.
“Clare, what are you doing?” Ryan hissed in my ear. His voice sounded shaky, like he was walking fast. I imagined, if I turned around, I would see him running toward us.
The man with the scar smiled at me, making the thin line on the side of his face more prominent; scary even.
I didn’t see his fist until it connected with the side of my head and everything went black; the only thing I was aware of was Ryan’s voice echoing in my ear.