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    Katie MacKenna experienced one storm after another in her life. When Leukemia stole her mother from her and her father, Katie was only seven years old and her father didn't know how to cope after such a catastrophic loss. Will the death and abuse surrounding Katie throughout her journey in life force her to shut down just to survive as well? Will circumstances open Katie to new opportunities or will they forever isolate her in survival mode?

    Chapter 1


    A Time to Mourn

    “Katie! Where are you?” Ryan Darcy yelled over the tornado sirens that screamed their warning of impending doom. He stumbled into the backyard, fighting against the whipping wind while ducking flying debris. Pounding on the sliding back door, he shouted, “Katie! You have to get out! The tornado’s heading our way!”

    Relief filled him when he saw Katie throw open the cellar doors. “Ryan!” she shouted. “Over here!”

    Ryan ran to her and hugged her. “Praise God! We have to get under. My dad called. It’s a super cell, and it’s headed this way.”

    She gulped. “How big?”

    “Massive.” He stared past her shoulders toward the distance. The color drained from his face as his eyes widened. “Oh, dear Lord, please be with us.”

    She turned to face what he saw, and her eyes widened in terror. The skies that had been partly cloudy only moments before were now pitch-black. The sun had disappeared, as though it were midnight, not the late afternoon. The only thing that loomed in the sky was a swirling monster. It looked as if the sky had come down and met the earth as it headed directly toward them. The loud sizzle of transformers exploding in the distance caused her to jump with each snap, crackle, and pop. Vast amounts of debris swirled in front of them while the funnel cloud collected every shred of garbage, plants, even lawn furniture. The eruptions deafened Ryan while it twisted metal, reduced wood to splinters, and shattered glass into flying debris that rapidly turned into projectile missiles around them.

    When his ears popped from the sudden shift in air pressure, he shoved Katie down the cellar stairs and latched the doors behind them. He grabbed her trembling body while they huddled in the corner. The doors shuddered when the mile-wide tornado neared their neighborhood, thrashing around, consuming whatever was in its path.

    Her body shook in his arms, but he did his best to comfort her, “It’s okay. We’re safe down here.”

    “I don’t know. That one looks enormous.”

    “We’ve made it through before. We’ll make it through again.”

    “How can you be so sure? It looks like a beast.”

    “I know, but...” Trying to convince himself as well as Katie that they would be okay, he said, “God will protect us.”

    As soon as he said it, a rush of wind ripped open the latch and sucked the metal doors into the funnel of debris. Ryan held Katie, protecting her in the corner of the cellar with his own body. He was aware of the disaster their town would be...if they survived.

    It sounded like an out-of-control freight train when it skirted Katie’s backyard. He couldn’t imagine the damage and devastation this one was causing as it tore through the town. They’d survived multiple tornadoes living in Oklahoma, but he could tell this wasn’t just another tornado. The intensity of this one was of monumental proportions. A beast of this extent destroyed towns.

    The wind gusts did its best to wrench them from their safe haven, but Ryan held tightly to Katie and a bench bolted to the floor. “Hold on tight!”

    “We’re going to die! We’re going to die! We’re going to die!” Katie repeatedly screamed.

    “Just hold on. I won’t let go! I won’t leave you!”

    * * *

    Six years prior

    The rain came in a steady flow, as it had been for the last three days. Seven-year-old Katie held onto her father’s hand while they stood with several friends at her mother’s gravesite. To Katie and her father, Brent MacKenna, their friends were their family. He and his wife, Megan, grew up together in a children’s home. Brent arrived in the home at age eight when his father went to jail for murder after a fight in a bar that went too far. His mother passed from a drug overdose only the year before. Meanwhile, Megan ended up in the orphan at age ten when her parents died in a car accident.

    Megan grew to be a sweet, gentle, Christian woman. Unbeknownst to her, there was a hidden murderer deep within her body. Four months prior to her death, the doctors discovered the Leukemia that had invaded her body in an aggressive attack. Katie watched helplessly as her mother was taken from her day after torturous day.

    She also watched her father shut himself down in a move of self-preservation. She was afraid for him. He used to be a fun-loving man to be around, Irish to the hilt, joyful, and full of life. She saw the light gradually dim from his twinkling eyes as her mother’s life ebbed away.

    Standing on the other side of Katie at the gravesite was Ryan. He reached over and held the hand of his best friend. They had been neighbors since birth and were inseparable, despite his two older brother’s attempts at making fun of him for his friendship with her. He admired young Katie and her drawing ability. They would take walks and play board games, often talking about what it would be like when they grew older.

    While he held her hand, he remembered a promise he made to her about two weeks prior to her mother’s death. Ryan and Katie were in the living room playing a game while their mothers drank sweet tea and talked in the kitchen. It was a rainy day, typical for March in Oklahoma. While tornado warnings graced the airwaves, nothing of substance had hit their area yet that season.

    Ryan played with a different strategy than Katie when they played board games. He did his best to acquire as much money and property as possible in order to win. On the flip- side, Katie was particular on which properties she bought and how she spent her money. This frustrated Ryan at times, because she always seemed to win every game regardless of his strategy.

    Ryan looked up at Katie as they were playing and mentioned, “Ya know we go into sixth grade in a couple of weeks.”

    “I know.” She grinned. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?”

    “You get that the three elementary schools come together in sixth grade? It’s junior high.”

    “I know.”

    “You’re not nervous?”

    She shrugged. “No. We know a lot of the kids anyway.”

    “When my brothers went into sixth, their friends changed.”

    She looked up at him with a furrowed brow. “What do you mean?”

    “Well, since they’re in sports, if their friends weren’t in sports they didn’t talk to them.”

    “Why not?”

    “I don’t know.” He thought about it for a minute before he suggested, “I think we should make a promise.”

    “What do you mean? What kind of promise?”

    “I think we should be best friends at least until we graduate. We’ve been best friends this long. I don’t think we should stop.”

    “Why would we stop?”

    “Because you don’t play sports.”

    “So, that means we can’t stay friends?”

    “That’s why I want to make a promise,” he said, offering her his pinky. She joined her little finger with his as he pledged, “I promise to remain best friends with you forever.”

    “And, I promise to be best friends with you forever too.”

    * * *

    Katie was at school on the day her mother passed. Brent was the only one in the room with her when Megan went home to be with the Lord. Megan’s best friend and Ryan’s mother, Abby, got Katie from school and kept her for the rest of the day.

    When her dad got home from the hospital that night, they sat her and Ryan down to explain that Megan died. Katie stoically sat there as if she were watching a horror movie. While she said good-bye and that she loved her mother the night before, she had no idea it would be the last time. There was no closure for Katie. She wanted her mother.

    * * *

    Later, on the day of the funeral, people moved in and out of Katie’s house, but Ryan faithfully remained beside her. He would only get up to get something to eat. Katie refused to eat, though, as she sat on the couch, hugging a pillow.

    “You need to eat, dear,” Abby said, sitting on the couch next to Katie when Ryan went for more food.

    Katie shook her head. She glanced at a photo of her mom on the end table beside her.

    “I’m pretty sure your mom would want you to eat,” she encouraged.

    Katie didn’t say anything. She only stared at the photo of her mother, remembering moments with her. She reached over and ran her fingers over the glass. It felt so cold. She felt so cold inside, like the glass. She missed her mom and couldn’t fathom never seeing her again.

    Ryan squeezed himself between his mom and Katie. “Here. I scored some fried chicken.”

    “I’m not hungry.”

    “Why don’t you two go to your room?” Abby suggested. “You know, to get out of this cluster of people.”

    “I don’t want to go anywhere.”

    “How about a game?” Ryan asked.

    Katie reluctantly got off the couch and followed Ryan down the hall to her room of the ranch style home. They hid all afternoon in the room, snacking on food Abby periodically brought to them.

    * * *

    After everyone left several hours later, Katie’s dad called her and Ryan into the dining room. When they all settled around the table with Ryan’s parents, Abby and Steve, Katie’s dad took a deep breath. “Katie bug,” he started with her nickname, “I need you to do me a favor.”

    “Anything.”

    “I need you to keep Abby company for a little while.” As he spoke, a tear rolled down his cheek. Brokenness and defeat written all over his body, he admitted, “I miss your mother terribly and I know Abby does too.”

    “But, she has Uncle Steve, Aaron, Pete, and Ryan,” she objected. “I want to stay here.”

    Abby got out of her seat and knelt beside Katie. She took her tiny hands into hers and explained, “Your daddy needs some time alone. His heart is broken, and he needs some time to heal. He doesn’t want to see you hurt while he tries to heal. He wants to be strong for you.” She reached up and tucked a portion of Katie’s raven-colored hair behind her ear so she could look into Katie’s hazel eyes. She sighed. “Ahhh, you have your mother’s looks.”

    “C’mon, man, let’s go play some pool,” Steve said, getting out of his seat when Brent dropped his head into his hands, distraught. “Think we need t’ talk.”

    After the men left, Ryan asked, “Why is Katie staying with us? Why would she not stay with her dad?”

    “Because her daddy misses her mommy so much, he doesn’t want to take it out on Katie.”

    Katie gasped as she looked at Abby in horror. “He would never hurt me.”

    “Not on purpose.” Abby looked down for a moment, working on the best way to word Brent’s intentions so Katie wouldn’t be upset. “He doesn’t want to forget to get you dinner or do your laundry. He needs a little help right now.”

    “But,” Katie’s bottom lip quivered, “I need him. I don’t have Mommy anymore and I really need Daddy. Please don’t make me go.”

    Abby had to take a deep breath to recover from that one. She knew this conversation was going to be tough, but she also had compassion for Brent. While she recognized he wouldn’t do it on purpose, she didn’t want Brent to fall into such a deep depression that he forgot about her and didn’t take care of her. Until he was stable, Katie needed to stay with them. “Katie bug, you’re breaking my heart.”

    Katie shook her head as the tears slowly poured down her cheeks. “I’ll take care of him. I promise.”

    “What if we consider it a week-long slumber party?”

    “She’s staying for a week?” Ryan asked, taken aback. “Even on school nights?”

    “Maybe a little longer. We’re going to take it one day at a time.”

    “I’ll take care of Daddy and the house. He won’t have to worry about anything,” Katie said in desperation. “I don’t want to go.”

    “Just for a couple of days. It will be good for me to have you around,” Abby coaxed.

    Katie pleaded, “I’ll be good. I promise.”

    “How about if I let you come over some times during the day to clean if you want?”

    “I don’t want to go, though. I will take good care of Daddy. I promise I will. I’ll be good.”

    “Katie, honey, I don’t want to be the bad guy here, but you are going to stay with us for a couple of weeks regardless if you want to or not.”

    After a long moment of deliberation in her mind, Katie nodded in understanding. Abby knew Katie well enough to read her body language, though. While Katie would do what the adults told her, she recognized Katie’s disapproval of the situation.

    * * *

    The Monday following the funeral would be a tough one for Katie. Abby knew Katie didn’t mind staying with Ryan’s family, but realized it wasn’t her family. “Have a great day,” Abby said as she squeezed Katie’s hand. She gave her toe- headed son a hug and kiss before she sent the duo off to go into the school. She was amazed by how opposite their looks and gifts were, that they were such great friends. She prayed it would continue. She knew Katie needed Ryan...and, deep down, Ryan needed Katie too.

    Ryan and Katie looked so tiny to Abby heading into the school with their large backpacks on. That March had come in like a lion. For the sake of the town, Abby prayed it would go out like a lamb. The tornado two weeks prior wreaked havoc on most of the downtown, but left a lot of the residential areas alone.

    “Lord, please help her,” Abby whispered as she turned on the engine of her midnight blue Range Rover and pulled out of the parking lot.

    * * *

    “That’s her,” Sadie Henderson whispered loudly when Ryan and Katie walked by. “She’s practically an orphan.”

    “You don’t even know what that means,” Ryan shot.

    She leaned against her locker in amusement. “Oh, like you do?” Sadie’s parents were both in high-powered city jobs, which generated a lot of income for her family. She was an only child, so her parents spoiled her, and she was one of the best-dressed fifth graders Katie knew. She had a snotty attitude though. While that made her ugly to Katie, there was a small group of girls who clung onto Sadie’s every word. Katie accepted that Sadie would be one of the popular kids when the three elementary schools combined in the fall for sixth grade and she wasn’t looking forward to it anymore.

    “It means that a person doesn’t have parents. She does. She has her dad.”

    “Then why is she staying with you? My dad said it was because her dad couldn’t handle her,” she snidely asserted to Ryan. Then she looked at Katie and asked, “Are you that much trouble? What did you do that he doesn’t want you anymore?”

    “Shut up, Sadie!” Ryan snapped. He grabbed Katie’s arm, pulling her down the hall. “Just ignore her. They have no idea.”

    “I want to go home,” Katie said, wiping the tears off her face.

    “We will, after school.”

    “No. I mean my house. I like staying with you guys, but I miss my daddy. I miss my home. Please help me talk your mom into letting me go home?”

    “We’ll see. Until then, let’s go.”

    Katie had to endure comments similar to what Sadie dished-out for the rest of the day due to Sadie’s clan of girls. Good news spread fast, but bad news spread like wildfire.

    That night, Katie won. After Ryan told his Mom what the kids in school said, Abby spoke with Brent. He reluctantly agreed that Katie could come home. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her. He loved her with every fiber of his being. The problem was that she was the spitting image of her mother, which broke his heart every time he saw her.

    * * *

    That night, Katie got up around midnight to go to the bathroom, when she noticed the lamp on in the living room. An eerie silence hung in the air as her dad slept on the suede recliner, and an empty Vodka bottle rested on the end table next to the picture of her mother. The alcohol stench was potent, but her dad was sound asleep, so she took the white afghan her mother had made two years earlier and draped it over her dad so he wouldn’t get cold.

    While in the living room, she gingerly stacked the newspaper that was strewn across the floor. Then she carefully removed the empty bottle of Vodka from the end table, along with his dishes from dinner, and quietly deposited them in the kitchen so as not to wake her father.

    When she returned back to the living room to finish straightening up, her father suddenly appeared in her path. His eyes were bloodshot and his face was bright red. “What are you doing up?”

    “I-I got up to go to the bathroom,” she stammered. “You were asleep. I covered you, so you wouldn’t get cold and cleaned the mess.”

    He picked her up by her shoulders and shook her. “You’re supposed to stay in bed once you go to bed! What did you do with that bottle?”

    She looked at him in wide-eyed terror as her feet dangled in the air. “In the recycling bin. I was quiet. I didn’t want to wake you.”

    His alcohol-laden breath overpowered her senses, and she cringed. “Did you drink any of it?”

    “What? No.”

    He studied her for a moment to see if she was lying before he set her down. “Okay. Go to the bathroom and go to bed. Don’t get back up, do you understand?”

    “Y-yes, sir,” she said, heading quietly to the restroom. Her body shook almost beyond her control as she went to the bathroom.

    When she finished, she glanced across the hall into her dad’s room. Seeing him sobbing as he held her mother’s photo in his hands, she quickly ran to her room and jumped under the covers so she wouldn’t get in trouble again.

    That night she prayed just as her mom taught her. She didn’t know if the God of her mother was listening, but she prayed with every bone in her body about her and her father’s broken hearts until she fell asleep three hours later.

    * * *

    From that point forward, Katie did everything she could to please her father. She would keep the house spotless and have the laundry clean or sorted so she could wash it over the weekend. She kept her grades as A’s or B’s, and even did a little grocery shopping after school before she headed home to do her homework and get dinner started. She didn’t want her dad to have to do anything. She didn’t want to give him a reason to make her leave again.

    Her dad, while she was sure he appreciated what she did, seemed to distance himself from her day after lonely day. By the time she headed into her freshman year of high school, Katie felt as if she were living by herself. Her dad would go to work at the factory every morning by five o’clock. Katie had her alarm set for six-thirty so she didn’t see him leave, but saw the remnants of his breakfast which consisted of coffee, fried eggs, and bacon. Katie would have already packed his lunch for work, so it was gone when she woke as well. She would make both of their beds, sort the dirty clothes from the previous day, and then make her own breakfast of toast with crunchy peanut butter and a glass of orange juice. When she finished her breakfast, she would do all of the dishes. Then Ryan would pick her up and walk with her to the school, which was a half-mile down the road.

    Fifteen-year-old Katie stood to about five foot eight, but only weighed one hundred and fifteen pounds, compared to Ryan, who began to fill-out last year. Ryan was also fifteen, but stood to around five foot ten. While Katie lost herself in her art, Ryan continued to pursue athletics. He was the quarterback for second string that year. Katie had a feeling the coach would bump him to first string by the end of the season. He was a phenomenal football player, and also played post on the basketball team and shortstop for baseball. He excelled at sports, and his friends over the last three years seemed to be thinning out to include only other athletes. Katie didn’t mind, though, because he still walked with her to school. He would also take her out to dinner followed by a movie every Friday night through junior high.

    “Morning,” Katie said with a smile as she opened her front door. “Ready to head to our first day of high school?”

    “Actually, I have to tell you that this is the last day I can walk you to school,” Ryan said apologetically. “Coach wants us to continue the two-a-days.”

    “What’s that?”

    “We have to do early practices since it’s so hot in the afternoon, along with a short evening practice.”

    Katie’s face fell. “Oh.”

    “I got permission to come back and get you today, but he said not to make it a habit.”

    “No problem. I understand. Thank you for coming to get me.”

    “I don’t mind.” He smiled, assuring her that she was still his friend.

    “Let me get my backpack.”

    With that, they headed off to school. An awkward silence hung in the air as they walked. She heard the frustration in his voice as he explained, “Look, I’m not in charge of my schedule anymore. The games are no longer on Saturday mornings. They are Friday night. I know my teammates will want to go out afterward, too.”

    She nodded in quiet understanding while her heart shattered into a million pieces. To her, the promise they made would soon be broken. She saw the changes coming and she should have known, but it didn’t make it any easier.

    “Ryan.” Sadie slithered over to his side as soon as they crossed the threshold of the school. “Soooo glad to see you. We have to talk.”

    Ryan raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

    “Why don’t you get rid of your puppy, and I’ll tell you.”

    Ryan shook his head, disgust weighed heavily in his demeanor. “Sadie.”

    Two of Sadie’s friends who Katie nicknamed ‘the brainless wonders’ ran up to her. “Did you tell him yet?” Tiffani asked.

    “Not yet.” She glared at Katie as she added, “He has company.”

    Katie sighed. “I can take a hint. Thank you for walking me to school.”

    Ryan shrugged it off. “Not a problem.”

    As soon as she stepped away, Katie could hear Sadie gushing all over Ryan, bragging about a party at Tiffani’s house, begging him to go. Katie couldn’t help but roll her eyes as she went over to her locker and put in the combination. How could he seriously like her? Sadie had most of the guys in school wrapped around her little finger, but she seemed to have targeted Ryan all the way back from elementary school.

    Katie was so into her thoughts, she didn’t see the guy open the locker next to hers. “Hi,” he said, putting his hand out for her to shake. “My name is Jackson Taylor, but my friends call me Jax.”

    “Hi, Jax,” she said, shaking his hand. “I’m Katie MacKenna.”

    “I know who you are.”

    “You do? How? I haven’t seen you before.”

    “I’m new in town. I actually moved here at the end of July.”

    “Oh. So, how do you know who I am?”

    “Well, my dad owns the new athletic store next to the grocery store, Windermere’s, on Fifth Street. I see you all the time going into Windermere’s. I work at my dad’s store, and one day your friend, Ryan, was in there buying stuff for football and you walked by, so I asked him who you were.”

    “I see.”

    “I’m harmless, really. Just looking for some friends.”

    “I think that can be arranged,” she agreed. “So, um, what’s that?” She nodded toward the instrument case he was carrying.

    “Oh, this is my saxophone.”

    “You play the sax?”

    “Yep. Jax plays the sax.”

    Katie couldn’t help but laugh at that one. Jax looked to be almost six foot, but was thin and scrawny at best. He didn’t look like he had grown into his body yet. His light brown, almost blond hair made his dark-brown eyes stand out on his etched face. He seemed to dress comfortable in jeans, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes.

    “So, is your bodyguard walking you home, too?” He asked.

    “My bodyguard?”

    “Ryan. You two seem to hang out a lot together.”

    “We do, but he’s my best friend, not my bodyguard or boyfriend.”

    “Do you have a boyfriend?” He asked, noting how her long, layered, wavy, ebony-colored hair made her hazel eyes pop. When she smiled, her entire face seemed to smile with her. Her eyes twinkled and her rosy cheeks stood out on her fair skin.

    “Nope. No boyfriend.”

    “Katie!” Katie’s friend, Emily Rand, ran up to her in the hall. “Did you hear?”

    “Did I hear what?”

    “Ryan is going with Sadie.”

    Katie shook her head. “He is not. She drives him crazy. Maybe you got your signals crossed or something. I know she was trying to talk him into going to a party this Friday. Maybe that’s what you heard.”

    “Nope. They were going down the hall with her arm looped through his.” She sighed as she said, “Isn’t that just the sweetest.” Emily stood all of five foot three. Her neatly kept light-brown, curly hair hung midway down her back, and her dark brown eyes and tan skin hinted to her Italian background.

    “Hi,” Jax butted into their conversation. “The name’s Jackson Taylor, but you can call me Jax.”

    “Hi.” Emily smiled up at Jax with stars in her eyes. “Have to say I have never seen you before. I’m sure I would remember it.”

    “I’m new in town. I actually live a couple doors down from Ryan and Katie, though she doesn’t know it.” He smirked, glancing at Katie.

    “You do?” Katie looked at him in surprise.

    “Yep. You’re usually too busy to notice.”

    “I have a lot to take care of,” Katie explained as her face flushed. Was her daily schedule so crazy that she didn’t even know she had a new neighbor?

    “Don’t worry about it.”

    “Katie!” Katie’s other close friend, Ty Bennett, ran so fast into Katie that her notebook flew out of her arms. Ty picked her up and swung her around in the air. “Aren’t you totally stoked to start our first day of high school?”

    “Totally.” Katie laughed as he set her down. She and Ty met in Art class on the first day of junior high and became quick friends. The six foot, blond-haired, green-eyed Ty couldn’t keep his shaggy hair from falling into his eyes, but his artwork was sensational. His sense for details in his pencil drawings amazed Katie. They were almost as crisp as a photograph.

    “Are these yours?” Jax asked in astonishment. “These are phenomenal!”

    “Yep. Katie and I are at the top of our class. We’re supposed to actually get some competition in drawing this year from the upperclassmen, but I doubt it.” Ty bragged, “If I’m not placing in first, she is.”

    Emily stuck up for Katie. “More times than not, it’s Katie in first.”

    Jax nodded, knowing his instincts to introduce himself were correct. “Impressive.”

    “Dude, we gotta get to first period. Wouldn’t want to start off on the wrong foot with our first teacher,” Ty said, resting his elbow on Katie’s shoulder. Jax was new, but Ty was on guard. He felt the need to protect both Emily and Katie. They had been his best friends since the schools combined in sixth grade, and he cherished that. “Hear they’re tougher in high school.”

    “What classes do you have?” Jax asked.

    Everyone pulled out their schedule and compared. They each had a couple different classes together.

    Ty directed Katie toward their first period class, while Jax and Emily took off in the opposite direction toward their classes. “C’mon, let’s go to English Lit.”

    “So, are you going to tell me?” Katie asked after a minute.

    “Tell you what?”

    “Tell me why you don’t like Jax?”

    “It’s not that I don’t like him. It’s that I don’t know him. He needs to earn my trust.”

    “I see. How long did it take me to earn your trust?”

    “Not long.” He shook his head. “You’re very trustworthy.”

    As they went to walk into class, Katie saw Ryan out of the corner of her eye. He had his arm around Sadie. Just before entering their classroom, Ryan kissed her cheek.

    “C’mon. He’s not worth the stress,” Ty commented, reading the hurt on Katie’s face.

    Katie had a sudden realization as to why Ryan told her he couldn’t take her to school anymore. Sadie told him not to. The loss of her friend broke her heart once again as he took off for his class.

    “To every season, there is a change.” Ty sighed. “Don’t worry. We’re not going anywhere.”

    “I know,” she said as she sat down at a desk. “I just wish he had the courage to tell me the truth. It was the lie that hurt.”

    “Sadie isn’t worth any amount of stress. She’s one of the most self-centered people I know.”

    “I hear you,” she said as the teacher got up to start class. “I just wish things were different.”

    “Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Now you won’t need to stress over him anymore.”

    “I don’t stress over him.”

    “Yes, you do.”

    “Something you want to share with the class or can I go ahead and start?” the teacher asked Katie and Ty.

    Katie’s face flushed in embarrassment. “I’m sorry.”

    “ My apologies. Won’t happen again,” Ty said as he felt like crawling under the desk. He knew Katie well enough to know she felt the same way. He also saw the hurt on her face and it was now his mission to help her forget her life-long friend so she could move on.

    * * *

    Over the course of the next few days, Katie would get a nod of acknowledgement in the hallway from Ryan, but that was it. She would also get dirty looks from Sadie, which Ty, Emily, and Jax didn’t mind returning.

    Jax seemed to be fitting into her little group well. She liked that he was comfortable to be around and honest...well, blunt.

    “I don’t know why you miss him. He seems like a jerk to me,” Jax remarked while he, Katie, Emily, and Ty sat at the table for lunch in a local restaurant. “Who would ditch their best friend for years for some girl? And she’s not even a nice girl either. Yeah, she’s pretty, but that’s it. And even then, she’s so ugly on the inside that it overshadows her looks and makes her ugly.”

    “Seriously, Katie, she’s not worth it,” Ty said, feeling her sorrow.

    “It’s not Sadie that bothers me. It’s what Ryan did. He lied to me. I can handle a lot, but lying is not among the things I deal well with. I would rather be told the truth than sort through lies to find it.”

    “People should be honest,” Emily said. She looked up as Ryan walked into the restaurant with several football players and a couple cheerleaders, including Sadie.

    Katie turned to see who Emily was glaring at. She got a sick feeling in her stomach when she saw him laughing and having a good time. “I’m not hungry.” She threw her French fry down into the basket. “I need some fresh air.”

    She left the table, pushing Ryan aside as she exited the restaurant. Feeling the vomit in the back of her throat, she crossed the parking lot, making a beeline for the school.

    “Some people can be so rude,” Sadie commented.

    Ryan looked after Katie. It had only been a couple days, but he missed his childhood friend. He painfully remembered the promise they made in the fifth grade as he watched her run across the parking lot.

    * * *

    That night Katie cleaned the house, mostly out of anxious, angry energy. It made her angry that Sadie took her best friend, but what was worse, he fell for it. Quickly making dinner for her dad, she put it on a plate in the refrigerator for him with a note, so he would know where she was and when she would be home.

    Her doorbell rang around six. She opened it to find Jax standing there in a light jacket as he leaned against the doorframe. “Evening.” He nodded with a smile. “Wanna go to a football game with me?”

    “We’re meeting Emily and Ty there,” Katie corrected as she grabbed her jacket and secured it around her waist. She locked the door, leaving the spotless home behind her.

    “You know, I’m not all that bad,” Jax pointed out while they walked toward the school.

    “I’m sure you’re not. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to date you though.”

    “How about we get to know each other over the next few weeks, and if you’re okay with it, I would like to take you to Homecoming. I understand it’s the second week in October. You can cancel anytime.”

    Katie laughed. “Are you asking me? That sounds more like a commercial.”

    “It is an offer...and one that you can refuse. I’m sure by now you know that I’m honest. I spell things out without pulling any punches. Life’s too short.”

    Katie shoved her hands in her pockets. She took a deep breath as she admitted, “I don’t have money for a dress.”

    “I’ll tell ya what, if you want to go to Homecoming, I will get you a dress.”

    “I can’t let you do that.”

    “Well, if you want, we could go on our own date on the night of Homecoming. Look, I like you. You’re pretty, sweet, and an awesome artist. You’re also shy, cautious, and a loyal friend.”

    “You picked up all that in five days?”

    “I’ve been here since the end of July,” he corrected. “Ryan has been in the store frequently due to sports, and we talk.”

    “About me?”

    “Well, you were in some of the conversations. I’m also a people watcher,” he confessed. “Wanna know what else I know?”

    “Kind of afraid to ask.” She chuckled, nervously tucking a portion of her hair behind her ear.

    “You have secrets...a lot of them. Your secrets are yours, but they make you who you are.”

    She looked up at him as she bit her nails – a nervous habit she did her best to kick over the years with no real success. Jax seemed to know an awful lot about her. If he was as intuitive as she thought, she would have to be careful so he wouldn’t figure out her real secret.

    “About time,” Ty said as he and Emily met them at the gate.

    “I need to go get ready for marching band. I’ll be in that section if you guys want to sit near there. Maybe we can go out for pizza after the game?” Jax suggested.

    Emily nodded. “Sounds good.”

    When Jax left for the band room, Emily, Ty, and Katie made their way up to claim their seats. The chill in the air sent a shiver down her spine, so Katie ran down and got a hot chocolate along with a basket of fries for the trio to share before the game started.

    “I’m glad you finally took the hint,” Sadie said, standing behind Katie in line.

    Katie ignored her, hoping she would leave her alone.

    “Ya know, Ryan doesn’t like you anymore. He thinks you’re annoying.”

    Katie rolled her eyes. “Whatever, Sadie.”

    “Hey, Katie,” Eden, the concession stand worker greeted her as it was her turn. Eden was in Katie’s art class. “What can I get you?”

    “Just a hot chocolate and fries.”

    “Sure. Just a second.”

    He rung her order up and she paid for it. While he was getting her order, Sadie took another shot at Katie, “I don’t know why you even tried. You are so far out of his class, it’s not even funny.”

    “At least I have class,” Katie shot back.

    “Here ya go,” Eden brought over her order. “I added an order of cheese and nachos, because I know you share with Ty and Emily.”

    She accepted the order. “I am. Thank you.”

    When she turned around, Sadie was within inches of her. “You think you’re pretty smart.”

    “I know I am. I also know who I am, and I don’t pretend to be someone I am not. You, on the other hand, seem to hide behind your parents.”

    Sadie crossed her arms as she glared at Katie. “At least I have parents.”

    “I have a dad. I also had a mom who loved me just as much before she died. Life isn’t all pom-poms and money. I pray some day you figure that out...before life teaches it to you as harshly as it taught me. Enjoy the game, Sadie. Seems you feel you won,” Katie said and left Sadie standing there with her jaw dropped.

    Eden looked after her in admiration. Not many people in school would tell Sadie Henderson off, but Katie was one of them, and he had a lot of respect for her.

    * * *

    Throughout the game, Jax and Katie both snuck looks at each other. Katie respected that Jax always seemed to find something to laugh or smile about. His personality and charisma attracted quite a few admirers. She could tell the girls in band that were enamored with him because they couldn’t take their eyes off him.

    Katie also caught Ryan glancing at her too, but so did Sadie. When Sadie saw it, she would glare at Katie, and then give Ryan a look. Ryan would just roll his eyes and shake his head. To Katie, he seemed more irritated with Sadie than in love with her. She couldn’t fathom what he saw in her.

    Jax kept an eye on everyone as well throughout the game. Katie’s fair skin and dark hair set off her brownish-hazel eyes that lit-up when she smiled. She had secrets though. He wasn’t sure what they were, but she was hiding them deep. He could still see the sadness in her eyes even though she was smiling. He decided right then to do his best to keep her smiling. She was tough, he could see that, but even strong people need help to get through life’s turmoil.

    Sitting near the band generated an energy and team spirit Katie hadn’t felt before. Ty and Emily seemed to enjoy themselves as well. She wasn’t sure the last time the three of them laughed so hard.

    At half-time, the band hit the field. Katie was amazed at the formations they did and that no one ran into anyone else. She had to laugh at the solo of the saxophone players as they danced to a particular song. It helped that she knew Jax, but those in the band looked to be having fun, even though the team was down by a touchdown. Thankfully, the team pulled it out in the last two minutes, winning the first game of the season by three points.

    “You know she’s unhappy and insecure,” Jax said as they walked to Pete’s Pizza, the pizza parlor near the school, after the game. “She’s going to be a bitter woman.”

    “Who?” Katie asked.

    “Sadie. She knows money and looks are her only assets. She’s jealous.”

    “Of me?”

    “Yes, of you.” Jax put his jacket on while they walked. “You, the one who had been Ryan’s friend practically since birth. You, who wins awards in art all the time. You, who is confident and knows who she is. Yes, you. Why is that so hard for you to see?”

    “That’s what we’ve been telling her for years,” Ty added.

    “She is still here,” Katie reminded them. “And, thank you.”

    “Unfortunately, she’s not one of those who if you ignore them, they’ll go away,” Emily pointed out. “Sadie is like a dog who doesn’t want to give up its bone. She’s relentless when she gets something in her head.”

    “Ha! I have never seen her so mad!” Eden skated up to the group on his skateboard after closing the concession stand. He brushed his jet black hair out of his chocolate-brown eyes. His thin frame stood out in his jeans and fitted t-shirt. He worked out, but had only started a couple months ago in order to build his core for skateboarding.

    “Who?” Emily asked.

    “Sadie. She was ready to spit nails when you left. Way to go, Katie,” he congratulated her.

    “What did you do?” Emily asked in surprise.

    “She told her off. Oh! You should have seen her face! Oh! It was priceless. I don’t care what anyone says, you rock, girl!” He kicked his skateboard up into his hand. “Classic.”

    “I ran into her at the concession stand,” Katie explained.

    “More like she targeted you at the concession stand. Little Miss Cheerleader who doesn’t drink soda, eat fries, or anything that isn’t rabbit food, actually bought a basket of fries and a soda. Katie upset her,” Eden assured the others. “She was flustered. It was awesome!”

    “I just –”

    “Put her in her place,” Eden cut Katie off. “I’m telling you. You should have seen her face. I give you major props on that one. As a matter of fact, a large pizza on me tonight,” he said, pulling out a twenty from his pocket. “And, I’m buying your soda,” he said to Katie.

    “You don’t have to.” She shook her head, embarrassed. “I didn’t do it to put her in her place. There’s no reason to celebrate it.”

    “I’m sure she’s going to put you through worse in the near future. Take your props when you can get ‘em. And, yes, I am,” he insisted.

    Ty tried to lighten the mood. “Hey, no objections here. I’m all for free pizza.”

    “There’re some of my boys.” Eden smiled as he saw a group of his friends going down the street on their skateboards, doing tricks because their team had won the game. They whooped and hollered, shouting a greeting at the tiny group as they passed on their way to the pizza parlor as well.

    Katie’s small band of friends arrived early enough that they didn’t have to wait long for their pizza. Halfway through their meal a group of football players and cheerleaders entered the pizza parlor. Cheers of congratulations rang from every part of Pete’s for the football players. Katie couldn’t help but notice Sadie hanging on Ryan’s arm, soaking in the attention. Ryan, on the other hand, seemed to be less accepting of the attention and almost seemed embarrassed to Katie. She knew her friend well enough to know what his body language meant, no matter what Sadie said.

    Emily rested her hand on Katie’s arm. “Don’t let this ruin your night. Just enjoy the celebration of us winning the first game of the season.”

    “Hey, guys,” Anna Stewart said as she sat down and grabbed a piece of pizza. Anna was only five foot six, but her sparkling, peaceful presence shone wherever she went. She wore her dark-brown hair in a pixie cut that made her Caribbean blue eyes stand out on her thin frame. She wore clothing that flowed with her, and today had on a choker necklace with lace for a chain and a heart for the charm. “So, I hear Sadie’s actually in a good mood tonight. All is right within the kingdom, huh?”

    “You could say that,” Jax said, taking a bite of his pizza. Jax knew Anna from band, where she played the flute.

    “What did I miss?” she asked, looking around the faces at the table.

    “Her highness thinks she rules the kingdom, and I can’t wait for someone in the upper class to straighten her out.” Ty huffed, looking sideways at Sadie and her group as they occupied several booths on the other side of the restaurant.

    “From what I hear, Katie did that earlier,” Anna pointed out. “I heard some of the cheerleaders talking about it. They were pretty ticked.”

    Katie shrugged. “They’ll get over it. I’m not worried about it. I’m sure someone else will look at her wrong and set her off.”

    “Not someone who has as close a connection to the guy she’s hot for as you do.” Anna shook her head. “Nope, sorry, Katie, pretty sure you’re high on her list.”

    “Oh well. I have better things to do than to be worried about the likes of her.”

    “Good. Then let’s move onto much happier news,” Ty changed the subject. “It seems our resident person of interest has done it again. Miss MacKenna beat me out of first place at the art fair for our level.”

    As the small group cheered, Katie blushed. She glanced around the room to see the football players looking to see what the commotion was about.

    “Ladies and gentlemen,” Ty said loud enough for people to hear while he stood, “We have a top-notch artist among us. Taking first place at the Fall Art Festival was our very own, Katie MacKenna.”

    They heard applause throughout the restaurant, as Ty continued, “This school is making headlines all over the place. Congratulations go out to our football team for winning the first game of the season as well. Great job, guys! Keep it up!” Everyone cheered again. “This is an evening of celebration!”

    The group stayed for another two hours before they broke up to head home. Katie was in good spirits when Jax dropped her off to go on to his house across the street. As she opened the door, she found her dad sitting on the couch with his arms crossed. “Where have you been?” he growled as he stood.

    “I went to the game, and then we went out for pizza afterward,” Katie said nervously. “I left a note on the plate in the fridge”

    “I didn’t see any food or note,” he snapped.

    “I swear! Look.” She went to go into the kitchen, but he grabbed her arm, stopping her in her tracks. She nervously looked up at him with terror in her eyes.

    He grabbed her other arm and shook her. “Don’t you know how worried I was? Doesn’t it matter to you? Don’t you care?”

    Katie’s voice quivered in fear, “I-I do. I left a note.”

    “I didn’t see any note,” he snarled.

    “Please,” Katie begged. “Please let me show you.”

    He shoved her toward the kitchen. “Fine. Show me.”

    Pulling the plate out of the refrigerator, her hands shook so badly that the plate fell from her hands, along with the note.

    They crashed on the floor, splattering the spaghetti and shattering the plate.

    “Look what you’ve done!” he shouted, shoving her against the wall. “Clean up this mess and make me dinner.”

    “Y-yes, sir,” she stammered.

    Plastered to the wall until he went to the living room, she let out a slow breath of air.

    The blood pounding in her arms made its way to the surface, confirming the bruises she knew would form. He had been getting worse over the last couple of years, and she knew she was in trouble when the alcohol stench hit her nostrils as soon as she walked into the house.

    She scrambled to clean up the mess and get dinner for her dad of scrambled eggs with ham and cheese, bacon, and hash browns. She also made him fresh squeezed orange juice before she took it into the living room, where he was passed out on the couch.

    She set the meal on the table, knowing he would see it when he woke up. Grateful he passed out, she knew he would not be yelling at her for the rest of the night. After she cleaned the kitchen, she went to bed, crying herself to sleep, praying that if there was a God, He would somehow intervene.