Until Alex

By: J. Nathan

PROLOGUE

HAYDEN

Alive.

You learn early on it means living, breathing, undead.

But don’t tell my mom that. She’d only hear the lyrics to her favorite Pearl Jam song. The one she’d been obsessed with since high school. The one that blared through the iPod dock speakers on her dresser.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her as happy as she was tossing shirts and shorts into the open suitcase on her bed. Her long brown curls bounced in time to the beat of the song.

Ten minutes before, she’d woken me up. And in the most angelic voice she uttered the words I’d longed to hear. “We’re leaving, Hayden. We’re finally leaving.”

I jumped out of bed and stuffed my T-shirts, shorts, and hats into my backpack and joined her in her room. If I’d forgotten anything important, it could be replaced wherever we ended up.

With all the excitement and hasty packing, my mom shoved up her sleeves. Purple and yellow bruises covered her arms. Noticing my wide eyes from my spot on her bed, she shoved the sleeves back down, clearly forgetting what they concealed.

What they always concealed.

The last note of the song drifted through the speakers. I waited anxiously for the next song to begin—knowing her happiness and the twinkle in her eyes would continue.

But the song never played.

“What are you doing?” His emotionless voice traveled over my mom’s shoulder, sucking the life right out of the room.

Goose bumps scattered up my arms.

My mom froze. Her face drained of color. And though her body blocked me from seeing the doorway, the terror in her eyes told me what I already knew. We weren’t leaving. We weren’t getting our fresh start.

She turned around slowly, her shoulders slumped. Even at ten, I could tell she was defeated. We both were.

I wanted to make a move, to tell him to leave us alone, but I sat frozen to the bed. It’s what always happened when he took that tone with her. I was so small, the smallest in the fifth grade. And weak. So very weak.

And as much as I tried to be strong, tried to defend my mom when he became violent, he just tossed my feeble body to the side, oftentimes locking me in a closet to keep me out of the way. I was a nuisance. It’s all I’d ever been for him.

“Hayden and I were just getting away for the night—”

Whack.

“Liar.” The word dripped with hate as he lowered his hand.

My mother cupped her cheek as she twisted around, checking to be sure I remained safely behind her. Her icy blue eyes misted over. Not from the slap. She’d endured worse and never cried. Her tears were for our missed opportunity. Our foiled chance to escape once and for all.

“Please let us go,” she whispered.

He leaned in closely. Now I could see him and the anger in his dark eyes. “Go? Go where?” The overhead light reflected off the shiny gold badge on the front of his uniform. The one that earned him respect from everyone in town. Everyone who didn’t really know him. “Who’ll want you?”

My mom sniffled. Or it could’ve been me. At that point, we both wept.

Needing to be closer to her, and wanting to keep him in my sights, I crawled to the foot of the bed. If I could see him, maybe I could protect her.

His white knuckles gripped her wrist like a vice. No wonder she hadn’t moved away from him.

“Please.” My voice came out low. Or was it that I just couldn’t hear it with my heartbeat pounding in my ears? “I have a game in Austin tomorrow. Mom thought you were working late so we were going to make a trip out of it.” I prayed my lie deflected the attention off of her. Because given his cold empty glare, she needed me.

Whoosh.

His fist slammed into my stomach. The wind knocked right out of me as my body folded and I toppled back onto the bed.

“Hayden!” my mom screamed, breaking free of his grasp and rushing toward me. She braced me in her arms as I gasped for breath. “It’s okay, baby. Mommy’s here. It’s going to be okay.”

It wasn’t. But I let her soothing words wash over me as I struggled to catch my breath and regain what little strength I had.

And then she was gone. Ripped off me like she’d been caught up in a tornado. Perfume bottles crashed to the floor as her body slammed into the dresser. Her scream echoed as glass from the mirror shattered over her.

My eyes shot to the monster.

His big hands were braced on his knees, his breaths deep like he’d run a marathon. He watched through beady eyes as my mother steadied herself to her feet.

I wanted to hit him. To knock him back. To kill him.

I jumped down from the bed and lunged at him. A vicious backhand to the face propelled me onto the floor. Black spots clouded my vision. My head spun. My nose was surely broken, but none of that mattered. I needed to get to the phone on the nightstand. If I could just call—

Click.

My head whipped around.

He held something black in his right hand. He lifted it, extending it out in front of him.

Shock seized every part of me. It couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be happening like this.

“Please,” my mother begged as he aimed the barrel of his weapon at her. She edged as far away from me as possible. She always kept his attention off of me. Always protected me. “I’ll do whatever you want.”