“What the hell is going on, you guys?” Rowena calls as she rushes towards them. Ash herds the two girls around the corner as quickly as possible. Getting them out of sight before the cops figure out who the new girl is. Before they try to talk to her. “Where’s Penelope? Why are the police here?”
“Row, calm down.” Sullie reaches forward, touching her friend’s arm.
“Just tell me what’s going on?” Confusion and panic flicker behind her eyes.
“Come sit down.” Sullie tries to lead her towards a seat.
“Stop it, Sullivan! I’m not a damn baby. Tell me what’s going on.” She shakes off Sullivan’s hand.
Ash steps between them, crossing his arms over his chest. “So, Penelope told my mom that she stayed at your house last night.”
“Oh.” Rowena’s face falls.
“Yeah, oh. Obviously she was lying. Where exactly do you think she was, Row?”
Guilt, sadness, anger and concern flicker across Rowena’s face in lightning quick succession. Her arms fall limp to her sides. Her knees begin to shake. “You know where she was, Ash.” Her voice is quiet, but steady.
“So you lied for her. Were you ever planning to watch a movie last night?” His eyes flashed with anger. “Or were you always a liar?”
“Ash.” Sullie shoots a look towards her boyfriend. Taking Rowena’s arm, she finally convinces her friend to sit down.
“Rowena?” He ignores his girlfriend. Sullivan bites her tongue and steps away from them, pulling her cell phone from her pocket.
“Of course we weren’t. I was always covering for her. I’ve been doing it for a month. But why does that matter? Why are we having this conversation here? What’s happened? What does this have to do with Penelope?”
“I want you to answer some questions first.”
“Ash, come on, can’t this wait?” Sullivan interjects.
“I just want to know when they got back together.” His posture doesn’t loosen at all.
“They never broke up. They just told you that so you would leave them alone.”
“Jesus Christ.” Ash rubs the bridge of his nose between his thumb and finger.
“I am not answering anymore questions until you tell me what’s going on.” Rowena pushes herself out of her chair, stepping uncomfortably close to Ash.
“They found Penelope in the woods this morning. She’d been attacked.” He tries to keep the edge in his voice, to make her feel guilty, but loses it when he sees the grief crumple her face. “She’s in a coma, Row.” He wraps his arms around her to comfort both of them.
“How badly is she hurt?” Rowena looks up at him. “Is she going to wake up? Who did this? You know it wasn’t him. Don’t you? He loves her. He wouldn’t hurt her.”
“She’s hurt pretty badly.” Ash shrugs. “I don’t know the exact details.”
“Are we allowed to see her?” Sullivan’s voice sounds from beside Ash, her hand on his shoulder. Rowena tries to regain her composure. She steps away from Ash and slides back onto the padded bench running along the wall, hugging herself.
“Only family right now. It’s stupid.” He pulls Sullivan into his arms. “Row, the cops are going to want to talk to you.”
“I know. The number showed up on my call display.” She runs her fingers through her hair. “God.”
“I don’t think you should tell them about Mr. Staal.”
“What?” Rowena’s head snaps up to look at him. “That’s kind of important information, Ash.”
“Like you said, he wouldn’t have done this to her. So, before we throw him under the bus, let’s make sure we’re right.”
“That’s what the police are for. We’re not Wallace and Veronica.” Sullivan pulls out of Ash’s arms. “And it’s not like you even like him, Ash. Why are you protecting him?”
“What do you want me to tell them?” Rowena sighs, agreeing with Ash. “I think we need some time to think about this before destroying the career of someone you both really like as a teacher. I have to believe that Penelope has better instincts than that.”
“I don’t know but with the amount of time she’s supposedly been staying at your house, you’re going to have to admit that you were covering for her.”
“I guess it’s time to put my bullshit skills to the test.” Rowena smiles gently. “Penelope always said they were impressive. I’ll come up with something.”
“Guys?” Emmette’s voice sounds from down the hall. He and Frasier hurry across the shiny floor towards them. “Ash? Oh my god, are you guys okay? How’s Penelope?” Emmette slides onto the bench, wrapping his arm around Rowena. Instinctively, she turns and buries her face into his shoulder. Her shoulders start to shake as she’s begins to cry.
“What are you guys doing here? How did you find out what’s going on?” Ash asks.
“Sullie texted us.” Frasier puts a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Are you alright, man? Is your sister?” His gaze drifts to where Emmette is comforting Rowena. His eyebrows draw together in confusion. “What the hell happened after I went home last night?”
“She is definitely not alright.” Ash sighs, squeezing Sullivan’s hand.
“Ouch, dude.” She mumbles, pulling her hand.
“Sorry.” He answers distracted, but his fingers relax.
“Do you want to see your sister?” Sullie asks quietly.
Ash nods. Together the five of them make their way down the hallway. Rounding the corner, they walk towards the entrance of the intensive care unit. Rowena stops about fifteen feet away.
“I need to go talk to them, don’t I?” She sighs, preparing to lie to the police.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Emmette asks quietly.
“No. Just be here when I get back okay?”
“Of course.” He squeezes her hand as she steps away with Ash. Together, they cross the hall to the small group of police officers standing guard at the door. Ash notices one of them is the same cop from his house that morning.
He nods at Ash as they approach. “Mr. Chisholm.”
“Hi.” Ash’s frayed voice finally shows signs that the day is catching up with him. “This is Rowena. You said you wanted to talk to her.”
“Rowena Morgan?” The officer consults his notebook again.
“Yes, sir.” She nods. Her eyes flick past him to try to see into the ICU.
“I’m Officer Daniels.” He offers his hand. After a quick shake, he turns back to Ash. “Thank you. I’d like to talk to Miss Morgan alone.” He gently places a hand on her shoulder and guides her away from the ICU towards a small seating area at the other end of the hallway.
Ash’s stomach twists with anxiety while he waits for his mother to come out of the ICU. He watches Rowena slumping into a chair, her elbows against her knees. He hopes that she can go through with it until he’s sure that his sister hasn’t walked herself into this nightmare. At the other end of the hall, his three friends sit along the wall, looking shocked. No one is speaking. His gaze settles on Sullie for a moment, her eyes rise to meet his. A small smile touches the corner of her lips. His stomach settles for the first time since the knock on their door earlier that afternoon. The corner of his mouth hitches up.
A movement further down the hallway draws his attention. His eyes meet an unexpected pair of brown ones. Rage colours his vision as the figure scurries around the corner. Trying not to draw attention to himself, Ash walks quickly towards the end of the hallway. Sullie gets up as he passes.
“Just going to the washroom. I’ll be right back.” He waves her off without stopping, without even looking at her. Rounding the corner, he sees who he’s looking for waiting at the other end of the hall. Now out of sight of the others, Ash’s feet swiftly close the distance between them.
“Okay, Rowena.” Officer Daniels leans towards her, comforting not confronting. “Let’s walk through what happened last night after Penelope left her house.”
“I don’t know what happened.” Rowena’s voice is quiet. Looking down at the floor, her long blonde hair covers her face like curtains.
“What time did she arrive at your house?”
“She didn’t come to my house.”
“What do you mean? Her mother said…”
“She’s… she’s been telling her parents that she’s been staying at my house, but she hasn’t been.”
“So she wasn’t with you last night?”
“No. She hasn’t stayed at my house in weeks.”
“Where has she been staying then?” The police officer’s voice takes on a deeper tone, harder.
“I don’t know. I just… she’s been seeing someone. I know he’s older than us, and that he has his own place. I know she said his house was yellow. A cute yellow house near the ravine.” Rowena shrugs as she sprinkles in the only thing she knows about Gil’s house. “She’s been staying there when she says she’s staying at my place.”
“And you have no idea who it is?”
“I was just happy for her.” She shakes her head, not directly lying “She seemed so excited. So completely happy about a guy for the first time. She said she didn’t want to jinx it by talking about it.”
“How much older was he?”
“Mid-twenties. He’s finished university.”
“When did she start seeing him?” He jots notes quickly in his notebook.
“Some time in September.”
“When did you talk to her last?”
“The last time we spoke was yesterday at school.” Rowena’s composure settles a little as they move into a topic she doesn’t have to lie about. “We texted a little in the evening before the rest of us went bowling.”
“When was the last time she sent you text?”
“Um, I’m not sure.” She reaches for her purse, and realizes that she’s left it beside Emmette. “The message is on my phone, over in my purse.” She jerks her chin down the hallway. “But I think it was around 6:00 or something like that. I sent her a couple more later in the evening, the last one was probably close to 11:00, but she never texted me back.” Her breath catches. “Oh god, was she already…”
“We don’t know a time yet. Until she wakes up, or we find a witness, we won’t know for sure when she was attacked.”
“God damn it. She was lying there and I was sending her messages about stupid boys!” Rowena slams her hand into her knee. “I’m so stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.”
“Hey. Hey. Calm down.” From the corner of his eye, the police officer notices the larger of the two boys stand and step towards them. He holds up his hand to stop him. “You are not stupid. There’s no way you could have known. No way.” He kneels down in front of her, taking her hands into his. “But the more you can tell me about this guy that she was seeing, even if it seems insignificant, the more likely we are to figure out what happened.”
“It couldn’t have been this guy she was dating.” She pulls her hands back and crosses them over her chest, trying to suppress her guilt. “She’s smarter than that.”
“We need to make sure we cover every possible option. You want to make sure we figure out what happened to your friend right?”
“So then, you need to tell me everything you know.”
“I’ve told you what I know. He’s older. He has his own place. She stayed there a lot. He’s smart, which she didn’t really like. Penelope’s never really been into school, and studying and stuff.”
“Well, there is something that… bothered me.” She admits, glancing at where her friends are sitting. Emmette is still standing, leaning against the wall.
“How so?” The officer pushes.
“I’ve noticed bruises lately. More than normal. I mean, she’s surprisingly clumsy for someone so athletic, but these were different.” Rowena chews the edge of her thumb.
“Different in what way?”
“They were in weird places. On her hips or her arms.” She inhales deeply. “I asked her about them once, but she insisted that they were nothing. Just injuries from training. I wanted to believe her, but part of me didn’t. Especially the ones that looked like fingers. But she’s strong and fast. She would never have let anyone do that to her. She was… I mean is, an athlete.”
“Her mother said that she’s a runner.”
“Record setting, award winning, and all that other stuff you’re supposed to do when you compete in sports.”
“You don’t approve?”
“No, no. That’s not it. That just isn’t the part of her that matters to me, you know?” Rowena’s eyes tear up again without warning. “She’s my best friend. She has been since we were six years old. I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do without her.” She folds at the waist. Her forehead against her knees. Officer Daniels stands, turns towards the big guy at the end of the hall and gestures for him to come forward.
Within seconds, Emmette is seated beside Rowena. His arm wraps around her shoulder, pulling her in close to him. The police officer stands above them, watching uncomfortably.
“We’ll probably want to talk to her again later. Please give her information to one of the officers before you leave. And tell her to call me if she remembers anything else” He hands Emmette a card before walking away. Rowena barely hears him over her sobs. Pressing her face further into the soft cotton of Emmette’s t-shirt, she feels the warmth of his skin. His fingers brush through her hair gently, pushing it behind her ear. She feels her breathing calm. The sobs begin to slow. Emmette cups her chin in his hand and lifts her face until she’s looking directly at him.
“We’re going to get through this okay?” His voice is low, even though they’re now alone. “We’ve got to be strong for Penelope. We have to help her pull through this. And Ash. And their family. We have a job to do.”
Rowena nods, taking a deep breath. “I just… I’m… Never mind. We’ll get through this. She’ll pull through this. She has to.”
“Exactly.” Leaning his face forward, Emmette allows his lips to meet hers. Gentle. Reassuring. Rowena’s response is driven by a need for comfort. She grabs his face. Pulls it into hers. Grabbing his lips between her own. Forcing a connection. “Hey. Hey. Row.” He pushes her away a little bit, but she pulls herself closer to him. Frantic.
“Please.” Her voice pleading, “I just need…something.”
“Row.” His voice is steady but strong. “Not here.”
“Fuck.” She pushes herself off him, scrambling away until her back hits the arm of the seat. Emmette moves towards her, putting his hand on her shoulder. She shakes him off. “Don’t placate me.”
“Come on, Rowena.”
“What? You obviously don’t want to be with me.” Her eyes flash with irrational anger. “You’ve come to your senses and realized that girls like me aren’t what guys like you are supposed to want. Last night was just some stupid experiment for you.”
“Dude. If I didn’t want to be with you, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be other there looking out for my oldest friend. I don’t do anything I don’t want to do. Ever. Last night was awesome. And this isn’t how I pictured the next time I got to make out with you. Is it really how you want it? On the cold, hard floor of a hospital hallway, while the cops and our friends watch? Does this hospital smell really turn you on?” Emmette raises an eyebrow. She doesn’t say anything for a moment, then she looks up at him and shrugs.
“You’re going to take some getting used to.” She chuckles.
“Learning is the most exciting part.” He pushes himself up and holds a hand out for her. “Now, let’s go get an update on Penelope.”