Chapter 21: Everything Changes

“Hey Mom.” Ash slumps into a chair at the kitchen table, rubbing his temples.

“Rough night?” His mother chuckles, sliding a cup of coffee in front of him.

“Just out late. It was after 4:00 when I got home.”

“Were you drinking?” Her tone hardens.

“No, Mom.” He sighs wearily.

“I’ve had to ask both you and your sister that recently. I finally have real teenagers.”

“Oh Mom,” He picks up the mug and blows gently on the dark liquid. Waves of coffee lap softly against the side of the cup. “You had so much more to worry about when I was dating Brooke.”

“How are things with Sullivan?”

“Good. Really, really good.” He sips the hot beverage. “This is something entirely new, Mom.”

“I can honestly say I would never have guessed you two would to start going steady.”

“I should eat some breakfast.” He changes the subject, not entirely comfortable talking about his love life with his mother.

“You know where the food is.” She fills her own coffee mug. “Although, it’s not really breakfast time anymore. Or even lunch for that matter.”

“Hmmm?” He looks up from his cup. She simply jerks her chin towards the clock before leaving the room.

Ash turns to look at a clock: 1:45. “Jesus.” He mutters. “There goes my day.” Shuffling to the fridge, he pulls open the door and stares inside.

Soon, he has the makings for a grilled cheese and ham sandwich spread out on the counter. Waiting for the frying pan to heat up, he looks out into the backyard. The weather today is beautiful, such a change from the rain last night. He heads downstairs to his room after piling two sandwiches on his plate. “Is Penelope out for a run?” He asks his mom around a mouthful of gooey cheese.

“She’s not home yet. She stayed at Rowena’s last night.”

Ash chokes on his sandwich, “What? Are you sure?”

“Yes. She left around 8:00 last night.”

“Huh, alright.” He takes the stairs two at a time, balancing the sandwiches as they slide precariously close to the edge of the plate. In his room, he tosses the plate on the desk before throwing himself into his chair and reaching for his phone.

“Hey you.” Sullie’s voice filters through the earpiece. There’s no trace of sleep in her voice.

“You have Rowena’s number, right?”

“Yes…” He can hear her curiosity. “Why…?”

“Apparently, Penelope went over to her house last night and stayed over.”

“But, Row was with us until like 3:00 this morning.”

“Exactly.”

“So, where was she?”

“Where do you think?” Ash can’t hide the anger in his voice.

“She wouldn’t have, would she?” Sullivan balks “She wouldn’t have lied to you for this long.”

“Of course she would have. She’s so fucking self-centred. Where else would she be?”

“Damn it, Penelope!” Sullie sighs.

“How can he think that he can keep up this charade until the end of the school year?”

“Hey. Why are the police here?” Sullie suddenly changes the topic.

“What?”

“Look out your window.”

Standing, he pushes the blinds aside, his eye-line level with the ground. Straight ahead at the end of the walkway, a white car sits idling. Blue and red stripes run down the side.

“That is the police.” He announces.

“Like I said… Ashy, did you hold up a bank.”

“We talked about calling me Ashy, didn’t we?”

“Yes. And I remember landing firmly on the side of I’ll call you whatever I want.”

“And I remember,” He pauses as he sees two officers get out of the car and start up the walkway to his house. “Sullie, I’m going to have to call you back.”

“Do you want me to come over?”

“Let me see what’s going on first.”

“If I haven’t heard from you in ten minutes, I’m coming to check, okay?”

“Uh huh.” Tossing the phone on the bed, he rushes out of his room, half a sandwich in his hand. “Mom.” He calls from the landing in front of the door.

“Yes, dear.” Her voice filters down the stairs.

“Why are the police here?”

“What?” Her voice gets louder as she appears at the top of the stairs, a dishcloth in hand, just as a knock sounds at the door.

He looks up at his mother, suddenly feeling young enough to need her. She starts down the stairs as he pulls the door open to two large men in dark uniforms.

“Good afternoon, I’m looking for Mr. or Mrs. Chisholm.” The taller of the two references a small pad of paper in his hand.

“I’m Mrs. Chisholm.” Ash’s mother pauses, a worried look washing over her face. She shakes herself into motion and starts down the stairs again.

“Mrs. Chisholm, is your husband home?”

“No, he’s away on a business trip. What’s this about?” She stops partway down the stairs, turning towards her son. “Ash, did you do something last night?” Worry changes to veiled annoyance.

“No, Mom, we just went bowling and then to Emmette’s. I swear.” He tries to think of something he’s done that would bring to police to their door. His mind suddenly flashes to the beer bottle flying out of his hand towards the plate glass window. Mr. Staal must have reported him. What a jackass.

“It’s about your daughter…” He looks down at his notepad again. “Penelope.” Ash’s head snaps up to look first at the cop, then at his mother. He sees her legs begin to shake. She reaches a hand out to steady herself on the banister. Her fingers clutching the dishrag turn a stark white. Ash shifts his body a few steps closer to her.

“Has something happened to her? Has she done something wrong?” She struggles to keep her voice steady.

“She was found this morning, off one of the running trails a couple miles from here.”

Ash steps forward to catch his mother as her legs give out completely. He helps her take a seat on the stairs. Forcing himself to be strong for her. “What do you mean found? Is she okay?”

“It appears that she was attacked late last night.” He pauses for a moment.

“Attacked?” Mrs. Chisholm’s voice rises and cracks, “She’s…. How badly is she hurt?” Unable to control the tears, she buries her face into her hands. “Oh, Penelope.” Her body begins to vibrate with sobs. Ash’s knees no longer support him. He slides down along the wall until he is sitting on the step below his mother.

“She’s alive, but badly hurt.”

“Thank god,” Mrs. Chisholm’s chest heaves.

“She’s okay?” Ash looks towards them, relief flooding through his body.

“She is in very serious condition. We don’t know much, but we can take you to the hospital, if you need a ride.”

“Do you know who did it?” Ash needs to know what they know. If they’ve arrested Staal.

“We don’t know. There was a lot of rain last night. We’re still collecting evidence. And we’re going to have to ask both of you some questions about her habits.”

Ash takes his mother’s hand in his own as he hears her inhaling, “How badly is she hurt?” She brings the conversation back to her daughter’s condition.

“You’ll have to speak to the doctors about that. She’s in the ICU at Glendale hospital.” The other officer glances at his notes. “I know you want to go see her but, we need to ask you some questions.”

“Now?” Ash looks up at his mother.

“I’m sorry. I know this is difficult, but the fresher the information, the more likely we are to figure out what happened.”

“Ash, it’s okay. If it can help, that’s all that matters.” His mother wipes her eyes and uses Ash’s arm to help her stand again. “What do you need to know?”

“When was the last time you saw your daughter?”

“Last night, she went out around 8:00. She stayed at a friend’s house.”

“What’s her friend’s name?”

“Rowena Morgan.”

Ash catches the snort on its way out. It ends up sounding like a sob catching in his throat. He chokes a little and bends at the waist, his hands on his knees. His mother reaches out and rubs his back.

“Was it normal for her to be on the running trails?”

“Absolutely, she’s a runner. She ran all the time. Every morning. A couple evenings a week.”

“Ash?” Sullivan’s voice carries from the other side of the still open door. The police look at her and then at Ash.

“She’s my girlfriend.” Ash answers their unasked question, “Can I…”

“Is there anything you can tell us that would be helpful?” The large, dark haired man looks down at him.

Ash pauses for a moment, “My sister is an amazing runner. For someone to catch her, they would have to be fast. Other than that. I don’t know. The last time I saw her was at school yesterday.” The officers step aside to let him through.

“Ash, what’s going on?” Sullie looks between the two police officers to see Mrs. Chisholm, tear streaks visible on her cheeks. Sullivan takes Ash’s hands between hers. She steps close to him and looks up into his face, hers a mask of concern. “Why are you telling them about Penelope?”

Ash shakes his head, the impact of what actually happened suddenly hitting him. His knees buckle beneath him. Sullie tries to catch him, taking on as much of his weight as possible, but it’s too much for her. They crumple to their knees on the grass.

“Ash?”

“It’s P.”

“What? What about her?”

“She’s been…” He takes a deep breath. It catches in his throat. He closes his eyes. “She was attacked…”

“What!?” Sullie takes Ash’s face in her hands, forcing him to look at her. “What? Ash! Why are the police here? Is she de…? Is she okay?”

“She’s seriously hurt. She’s in the hospital.”

“Is she going to be alright?”

“They don’t know. We’re going to have to go to the hospital to find out more details. I just want to go but they have all these questions.”

“Did you tell them about you know who?” Sullivan asks in a quiet voice.

Ash places a finger over her mouth and pulls her into a hug. “No. I need some time to think before I accuse him of something like that.” His voice quiet against her ear. He looks up from the corner of his eye to see one of the police officers watching them on their knees on the grass of the front lawn. He pulls Sullivan closer, the feeling of her body against his provides instant comfort. The need to have her close overwhelms him. He pulls her into a long kiss, needing the connection. Needing to feel like everything isn’t spiralling out of control.

“Ash.” He hears his mother call from the doorway. He pulls away from Sullivan. Her cheeks are wet but behind her glasses her eyes are dry. She stares at him with concern. He touches his own face and feels the moisture around his eyes.

“Mom?” He brushes away the tears.

“We’re going to the hospital. Sullivan, would you like to come with us?” She sounds calmer than he expects.

Sullivan stands and steps away from Ash.  “I’m so, so sorry.” She wraps her arms around Mrs. Chisholm’s waist and pulls her into a tight hug. “I am absolutely coming. Can I just run in and tell my parents what’s going on?”

“Ash needs to change. Be quick, both of you.” She squeezes the young girl who’s such an important part of both of her children’s lives.

Ash grabs Sullivan’s arm before she can run away and pulls her into a hug. Watching the police who are still talking to his mother, he whispers in her ear, “Send a text to Rowena. Tell her to meet us at Glendale right away. Don’t tell her what’s going on. And tell her not to answer her phone until she talks to us.” Sullie pulls away, a look of confusion in her eyes. He just nods, kisses her, and heads back into his house.

Within half an hour, Ash, Sullie and his mother are rushing through the hospital corridors, searching for the ICU. The appearance of a police presence tells them that they are in the right place. As his mother walks towards the officers standing outside the main doors, Ash and Sullie take a seat on one of the benches running along the walls. Sullivan leans into Ash’s side, taking his hand in her lap. Her fingers intertwine with his. He understands that she’s trying to support him without falling to pieces herself. He rests his head against hers. Tears flow from his eyes into her hair. He can’t seem to control them. To stop them. She squeezes his hand tighter, bringing his fingers to her lips.

“She’s going to be okay. She has to. It has to work out.” She reassures them both. She jumps as her pocket begins to vibrate. Pulling her phone out, she sees a message from Rowena. “Row’s here. Should I go get her?”

“No.” His fingers grip onto hers tightly in his distraction “Get her to meet us here.” Sullivan hits a few buttons and then listens to the phone ringing at the other end of the line.

“Sul?” Rowena’s voice sounds slightly panicked. “What’s going on?”

“We’ll explain when we see you. Come to the ICU.”

“Why? Are you hurt?”

“It’s too hard to explain over the phone.”

“Where’s the ICU?”

“Follow the blue line on the floor. We’ll be in the hallway.” She slides the phone back into her pocket. “She’ll be here right away.”

“I’m going to go talk to my mom for a second.” He kisses her quickly, “You’re alright here?”

“Don’t worry about me. Go find out what’s going on.”

Ash approaches his mother as she continues to speak quietly to a group of people at the end of the hallway.

“Mom?” His voice sounds so uncertain it startles him. His mother turns towards him, holding a hand up to the police officers and doctors she’s been speaking to. “What’s going on?”

“She’s in a coma, Ash.” Her voice is weary.

“Is she going to be okay?”

“We don’t know yet. They’re doing their best, but she’s been badly hurt.” She inhales deeply. “They won’t know about brain damage until she wakes up.”

“Can we see her?”

“Only family right now. So, the girls can’t see her until she’s more stable.”

“Why?” Ash looks towards his girlfriend, knowing she’ll want to see Penelope. “It’s not like we can tire her out. She’s not awake.” He’s suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of petulance.

“Ash.” His mother’s voice is tired “Please, it’s just policy, and I don’t have the energy to fight with them about it.”

“Sorry.” Guilt pushes aside everything else he’s feeling. “When’s Dad getting here?”

“He got a flight that leaves in about an hour, but he won’t be here until this evening.”

Ash sees Rowena turn the corner at the end of the hall. “Mom, are you going to be okay?” Touching her arm, he turns her towards the window into the ICU so she won’t notice the arrival of Penelope’s best friend.

“I don’t know, sweetheart. I’m going to go in and see your sister now.”

He kisses her cheek and watches her go through the guarded doors before heading towards the blonde hurrying down the hallway.

Chapter 22

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