Chapter 24: Filling in the Blanks

Ash runs his fingers through his short black hair, trying to make sense of everything. He leans his head back against the hospital wall. The image of Penelope’s tiny body lying against the stark white sheets of the hospital bed is almost too much to bear. Her arms, usually so muscled, lie weakly against the side of her body. The deep purple bruises around her neck make his stomach turn. The beeping from machinery monitoring her vitals is the only sound in the room. All he wants is for her to wake up, to sense his presence, his need for her to come back to him. He tries to tap into the twin bond that everyone talks about. To feel it for the first time in his life, but he feels nothing but a headache forming behind his eyes. He can’t seem to make himself say anything. To vocalize his pain seems an impossible and pointless task in a room where no one can hear him.

Reaching forward, he takes her hand in his and feels the soft skin beneath the tips of his fingers. The moment is intimate. More intimate than any moment he and his sister have shared in several years. A smile traces across his lips as he remembers when they were kids and would climb into their dad’s giant recliner together to watch movies. A big bowl of popcorn resting on their laps and juice boxes jammed in the cupholders. Penelope would almost always fall asleep before the movie was over and would end up drooling on his shoulder. But he loved his sister, so he would just wipe the drool off his shirt and rub it into her hair, like any good brother.

But now, they’re grown up and things are changing. Their parents’ separation has been the hardest thing for them to overcome. Their beliefs are just so different. Ash can’t understand couples that are on again, off again all the time. If someone was to ask him why, he wouldn’t be able to explain it. He just knows that this is what he feels. Penelope’s the opposite. She comes across as closed off and guarded, but she’s a romantic at heart. Their parents getting back together was the best moment of her life. Ash had been sure that this was a disagreement they would never recover from. Sure they would always be civil and friendly with each other, but they’d never be as close as they were. Then Sullivan came along and everything changed. Now they’re here, on the verge of renewing a real relationship again and… Ash can’t let himself finish the thought. He pushes out of his chair, and brushes the hair from his sister’s face.

“I don’t believe that this was just some random thing, P. I really think that you made a bad choice and this is how it ended. I wish we’d been close enough for you to trust me. To talk to me. I wish I hadn’t been such a jerk when you tried. I’m going to find out what happened to you.” Ash leans forward and kisses Penelope’s forehead. Turning, he walks from the room with a deep sigh. In the hallway, he flops onto the couch and closes his eyes.

“Ash.” Sullivan’s voice is soft. The cushions shift as she sits beside him. “Do you want me to get you some food? You must be hungry.”

“What time is it?” He doesn’t open his eyes.

“Almost six.” Frasier’s voice answers.

“I just want to leave.”

“Are you sure?”

“Rebecca?” A familiar male voice sounds from down the hallway. “Ash?”

“Dad?” Ash opens his eyes to see his father hurrying towards them, his dark hair uncharacteristically dishevelled. Ash pushes himself up off the couch.

“Ash.” He pulls his son into a tight hug. Ash can’t remember the last time his father had shown him any kind of physical compassion. “What’s going on? Where’s your mother? Where’s Penelope? Is she okay?”

“No, Dad, she’s really not. Not even a little bit. I’m really scared.” Ash feels a weight lift off his shoulders. Admitting his fear allows space in his chest. Ash leads his father down the hallway. “I was just about to head over to Frasier’s. I need to get away from the hospital for a little while. And now that you’re here to look after Mom…”

“Sure, sure, Son.” His hand absentmindedly pats Ash’s shoulder. “Do you know where your mother is?”

“I’m not sure, actually. Maybe getting some food.”

“I’m going to go find her. You go and clear your head.” He begins to walk away, tugging at the cuffs of the ratty sweater he only ever wears on plane rides. He stops and turns, “Ash” he calls towards his son. “Please be careful.”

“I will.” Ash nods. For the first time in over a year, he feels no animosity towards his father. There’s no room for it right now. Sullivan and Frasier wait further down the hallway. “Come on. Let’s go.” He heads to the main entrance of the hospital. The doors slide open, allowing the cold October rain to mist against their skin.

“Frasier, we came with Mrs. Chisholm, can you drive?” Sullivan reminds them.

“Crap. I gave my car to Emmette for the whole Rowena thing.”

“I guess we’re calling a cab.” She digs around in her pocket for her phone.

“I think I’d rather walk.” Ash looks out beyond the awning overhanging the entrance. “It’s only misting.”

“We’re going back to my house, right? That’s not too far.” Frasier holds a hand out into the rain.

“Hang on a second.” Holding up a finger, Sullie turns and rushes back in through the automatic doors.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Ash?” Frasier hugs his arms around himself, fighting off the cold. “I mean, I know you’re not okay okay, but are you at least hold it together okay?”

“I’ll be fine. As soon as we figure out who did this to my sister.”

Frasier pauses “Isn’t that something that we should be leaving to the police? I know journalism is your thing and you like all this criminology stuff, but you’re not an actual detective, Ash.”

Before Ash can answer, the doors slide open again. Sullie glides out of the hospital on a brief wave of heat, three coloured cylinders under her arm.

“Here you go.” She brandishes the blue one towards Frasier. “These should help a little.” She hands the green one to Ash and then pushes open her own plaid umbrella. “Let’s go. Row and Emmette are meeting us in an hour. We have a lot to talk about.” Stepping out onto the sidewalk, they turn south and begin walking into the dark, rainy evening.

They walk in silence. The sound of cars splashing through puddles is too loud to allow for easy conversation. Even with the umbrellas, they’re cold and wet by the time they reach Frasier’s house. His car sits out front, the interior lit by the dim glow of the streetlight it’s parked beneath. The two bodies inside lean towards each other. Frasier raps his knuckles sharply against the window.

The passengers jerk away from each other. “The only person who gets a piece in my car is me. Stop it.” Frasier scowls through the glass. Rowena’s cheeks redden noticeably, even in the pale light. A slow smile spreads across Emmette’s face as he leans into Rowena and pulls her into a deep kiss. Frasier pulls the door open. The rain splashes into the warm interior, falling directly on Rowena.

“Your car is right there, dude!” He points to the car in front of his. “Right there!”

“Okay. I give! I give!” Rowena pulls away from Emmette, holding up her hands in surrender. Laughing, they both climb out of the car. Their laughter dies when they see Ash and Sullie standing off to the side. “How are you?” Rowena asks Ash.

“Let’s go inside.” A small upturn in his lips shows his appreciation.

Soon they’re in Frasier’s kitchen, sitting around the kitchen table with mugs of hot chocolate to fight the chill of both the weather and the day. The silence hanging over them is not comfortable. Hands wrap around warm ceramic, searching for calm, for stability, for reassurance.

“Okay.” Frasier’s voice booms in the silence of the large room. “I feel like I’m out of the loop on pretty much everything. I wake up this morning a little pissed that I’m grounded and out a bag of pot. I go to practise as usual. Then all of a sudden, I’m going to the hospital because my oldest friend” he points towards Ash “is there with his sister, who is lying in a coma. And once we get there, I see my other best friend” he points towards Emmette “is suddenly seriously involved with a girl who wasn’t even in his orbit last month.” He turns towards Rowena. “No offence, Row. You guys look inappropriately happy, but the whole thing is a little hard to wrap my head around.” He pauses to take a drink. “Then, I find out that Ash is beating up one of our teachers. And now, I’m sitting here cold, and wet, and extremely confused. And someone needs to tell me what the hell is going on.”

“Let’s clear up the stuff not directly related to Penelope first.” Emmette leans back in his chair, arms behind his head. “Rowena and I are new, like…” he glances at the clock on the wall, “eighteen hours new, but it is what it is. And it’s just the two of us from now on. This is officially the end of the Wednesday Scheme. We are a couple.”  Rowena’s grin is so big it peeks around the sides of her coffee mug.

“Shit, man,” Frasier shakes his head “But you were doing so well. Are you sure you want to give that up? You could have left this school as a legend.”

“Hey!” Rowena tosses a marshmallow at him from the bag on the table.

“Kidding!” Frasier holds up his hands. “Kidding!” His posture stiffens as his arms cross over his chest. “So, on to the more serious topic.” The smiles fall from their faces. “Ash?”

“I actually think Rowena should start. She knows more about how this all started. Sullie and I will fill in the details as we go.”

“I feel like I just keep telling the same story over and over again. I’m like stuck in a terrible loop.” Rowena runs her hands over her face and through her long hair. “Way back about a month ago, Penelope and Mr. Staal met outside of school…” For the next ten minutes or so, she and Ash fill Frasier and Emmette in on everything that’s happened. Some of Ash’s details are new to her; some of hers are new to him. When Ashes finishes describing the cops visit to his house earlier that day, everyone sits in stony silence. No one knows quite what to say.

“How did you end up beating up Mr. Staal?” Emmette turns towards Ash.

“He showed up at the hospital. Spouting some nonsense about how important Penelope was to him. He called her P.”

“No one gets to call her that but you.” Sullie’s eyebrows jump up on her forehead. “Not even Row and me.”

“Exactly.” Ash rolls his neck, the bones cracking. “I just couldn’t believe that he would show his face there. That he lied to me. That he got her to lie to me. She has never flat out lied to me before. Not about something this important.”

“Ash…” Rowena’s voice is soft. “I know I said otherwise, but do you think that Mr. Staal might have done this to her?”

“I don’t know. I don’t really think so. I mean, he wouldn’t right? Didn’t he say something to you about finding her?” He turns to Sullivan.

“Yup. He’s using it as his alibi.” She nods. “Implying he wouldn’t have found her if he had hurt her. But I think he’s lying. I think he set up finding her.”

“What makes you think that?” Emmette turns towards her, “That would be ballsy.”

“He would know the tricks. He teaches criminology.” Rowena leans her elbows on the table. ”Wouldn’t that be the perfect cover? He knows all the ways criminals get away with what their crimes, but doing those things would be ridiculous because everyone would know he knows them.”

“I don’t think this is the first time he’s done something like this.” Sullie taps her fingers against her mug. The silver of her rings making a hollow clinking that seems violently loud in the heavy silence.

Chapter 25

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