Shift by Lana Sky

1

Loren Connors faced the world beyond the battered screen door with the same hope she had every morning since moving in ten months ago. Was it too much to ask if today could be…

A little less shitty?

As always, the optimism didn’t last. Seconds into her trek to the bus stop, a familiar dread ran down her spine, heralding a truth that seemed as inevitable as the rain promised by the purple clouds swirling above. Today would be just like the rest—another shitstorm she’d have to trudge through in a worn pair of sneakers.

The shoes were a sticking point, weighing on her mind with every step. Last night, she’d hoped to convince her father to buy new ones. A pair of boots, perhaps? It was the least he could do. Considering that she’d destroyed her sneakers performing the job that should have been his—delivering newspapers to their outlying part of town.

She planned to spring the request on him last night after dinner, when he was well into his second beer. Winter was approaching fast, and the bottoms of her Kicks were already reinforced with more duct tape than the original soles.

To be fair, the attempt almost succeeded. She cooked dinner like usual and even managed to stay out of his way afterward.

But then…

She got too close. Close enough for him to smell it on her—the intoxicating scent of fresh air and horses. Instantly, he knew she had been there.

Game over.

Instead of new shoes, that bit of disobedience earned her a blow to the chest that still ached beneath her sweater. Her sole consolation was that he didn’t hit her in the face, where the resulting bruise would signal that all was not well within the crumbling walls of the Connors’ household.

Devising excuses to explain the multiple injuries had become a game of sorts during the few months she lived with him. Today she’d need a reason to skip gym, where the thin T-shirt wouldn’t be enough to disguise this newest injury.

Her period, maybe? Or had she used that excuse last week? Lost in thought, she didn’t notice a hot pink sports car pulling up alongside her until one of the occupants called out.

“Hey, Connors.” The driver, a beautiful blond by the name of Naomi, cackled maliciously. “Need a ride?”

Loren didn’t bother replying. Like a turtle recoiling in its shell, she had her own tricks to avoid detection—keep walking and mentally count the steps remaining between her and the bus stop.

One. Two. Three.

“Naomi,” a minion stage-whispered from the convertible’s back seat. “You know she’s like, mute.”

Loren felt her lips quirk into a faint smile. As far as the student body at New Walsh Academy was concerned, she had spoken all of ten words since she’d moved there. Namely to teachers, and never without vigorous prompting on their part.

The rumored consensus was she was cripplingly shy, or a little “touched.” Mute. The real explanation was a lot simpler. It was so much easier to live a lie in silence. There was a selfish motivation, too. If she hadn’t clammed up all those years ago, the sound of her own screaming might have driven her insane. Still, she should have had enough sense to hide her emotions this time—her smile was too wide, and Naomi’s green eyes cut to her maliciously.

“You think this is funny?” The tires of that expensive sports car squealed as Naomi slammed her foot on the brake. “I think I prefer your dumb blank stare to that shitty little smirk.”

“Hey…” The second minion spoke up. “Naomi, I don’t want to be late again—”

The blond shrugged off the protest. “Just a second.”

With her head held high, she climbed from the driver’s seat to block Loren’s path.

“You think you’re so much better than us, Connors?” she demanded, hands on her perfectly slender hips. “Ever since you moved here, you’ve been a stuck-up little bitch, walking around with your nose in the air. Hello? I’m talking to you—”

Loren barely heard her. She was too busy eyeing the girl’s beautiful pair of faux-kidskin boots. Obviously, she didn’t have to beg her father for new shoes.

“Hey!” A pair of manicured fingers appeared beneath her nose, snapping impatiently. “I’m talking to you, Connors. Do. You. Think you’re better than us?”

Naomi gestured to her so-called friends, who all seemed like bleached-blond copies.

Loren shook her head and kept walking.

Five.

Six.

Seven—

“Not so fast.”

A hand latched onto her forearm, wrenching her around. She staggered to find her balance, and a sharp pain lanced through the sole of her foot. Oh no. Some of the duct tape must have worn through.

Distracted, she missed the manicured hand swiping at her face. Wham! The blow dislodged her woolen cap, and her hair fell loose, tangling around her shoulders.

“Did you hear me?” Naomi demanded. “Or are you deaf, too?”

Blank,Loren scolded herself, fighting to smother her shock. Be empty.Make your face a mask—that’s it. Never let them in.Never let them see.

Once she regained control of her breathing, she stooped for her hat. The second her fingers contacted the wool, the heel of a thigh-high white boot descended to crush them.

Loren gasped before she could reel it in.

Mistake,a part of her scolded. Big mistake.

“So, she does speak!” Naomi cackled with glee and snatched for her forearm next.

Dragged to her feet, Loren lost her grip on her bag, spilling books and materials over the sidewalk. “No! Don’t!” she croaked, this time consciously.

Unbothered, Naomi stooped for her bag and rifled through it.

“Oh, what?” she taunted. “Don’t want us to see what the little mouse is always hiding?”

She overturned the bag, dumping out the contents.

Loren winced as her homework scattered on the wind, but nothing tugged at her heart more than the plastic baggie full of carrots that landed in the street. Or the apple that dented against the damp ground.

“Is that her lunch?” Someone giggled from the car’s back seat.

No.Most of the time, she went hungry, though some days Mona, the lunch lady, tossed her a banana from the lunch line if she looked pathetic enough.

The carrots, carefully rescued from the back of the fridge among the many cases of beer, had been a gift meant for the only friends she had. And Naomi gleefully stomped them into mush without a second thought.

“Guess you’ll just have to go without, hun,” a blond from the convertible suggested.

Don’t cry,Loren told herself, blinking against that warning sting prickling the backs of her eyes. Still, her heart lurched as Naomi turned her attention to the discarded apple.

“Stop!” The plea broke loose, hoarse and broken. She raced forward, but Naomi kicked the apple out of her reach.

“Hold the bitch back,” Naomi demanded, and, like well-trained dogs, her two minions scrambled from the back seat to do her bidding.

One snatched a chunk of Loren’s hair and used it as a leash to keep her restrained, while the other kicked the fruit into the street.

“Aw, look,” the culprit taunted. “She looks like she’s going to cry.”

Loren tried to keep the tears at bay but failed. Unbidden, they coated her cheeks in bursts of warmth. Sorrow wasn’t the source—just guilt and rage. It had been so hard to scavenge those meager offerings. If her father knew that she had stolen the carrots, he’d…

Kill her.

“Aww, lighten up, Connors,” Naomi urged cheerfully. “It’s not like any guy will give you the time of day, even if you went on a diet.”

They all laughed, but Loren flinched, subconsciously huddling tighter within the confines of her sweater. Attention from anyone was the last thing she wanted.

The only plus side to having little money to spend on clothes was that the few things she did own were nondescript and shapeless. The perfect armor to go unnoticed. The sweater she wore now was four sizes too big and hung to her knees, perfectly obscuring the pair of black leggings that had cost fifty cents at Goodwill.

“Ah, look, Naomi,” the second minion remarked on a laugh. “She’s blushing.”

“Maybe she already has a boyfriend?” the girl clutching her hair wondered with a playful yank.

“As if,”Naomi countered.“Who would date a freak like her? I wouldn’t walk around so high and mighty if I came from a shithole like little Loren here. My dad knows the police chief from Ridgerton.”

Loren flinched at the name. It was a town a few hours north, and the focal point of most of her nightmares.

“I heard them talking about a case that occurred under my father’s friend’s jurisdiction. A certain case involving a woman who killed herself one day, leaving her daughter to be shipped off to an uncle who lived in town. From the outside looking in, everything had appeared okay at first. Until neighbors started hearing the screaming at night—”

No.Fear gripped Loren’s lungs, painfully squeezing out whatever air they contained. No. She wouldn’t go back there. Not to that house, or that room—God, not that room. Not to the stifling scent of cheap cologne, or the darkness, and pain…

“Naomi...” Minion number one took a step back. “This isn’t funny. Knock it off.”

“Why?” the blond demanded. “I was just getting to the best part. Apparently, this Uncle Bart—”

“Stop!” The other minion was shouting now, disobeying the unspoken cardinal rule of being one of Naomi’s “friends.”

Like sheep, Loren thought around a hysterical snicker. Naomi liked her friends like a shepherd liked his sheep. But Uncle Bart hadn’t liked it when she talked back, either.

He didn’t like it at all.

“No,” Naomi hissed.

Then she crouched before Loren so that they were nose to nose.

“They say a neighbor finally called a cop one night,” she continued. “Apparently, the girl wouldn’t speak. She just went to school one day and stopped talking. Clammed up. When they searched that house, the things they found there... Some on the force still talk about it to this day.”

Loren knew damn well what they had found. A room. One so small it seemed more like a closet. In fact, it was a closet. Clothes had been kept there—sometimes, lying there at night, she could almost smell the mothballs.

Of course, what had caught everyone’s attention had probably been the chains. Long, they had stretched from a man-made post drilled into the wall. The perfect length for her to use the bathroom at night whenever her cell happened to be unlocked.

“The conditions were so bad that they relocated the girl to a different city rather than find a foster family in Ridgerton. With a father who hadn’t even wanted her in the first place.” Naomi’s voice was cold. Like the detached voice of a narrator on the evening news.

And the girl, whose name has not been released, was removed from the home. Rescued…

Only not really.

Still think you’re better than me, Connors?” Naomi snarled. “Still think that, huh?”

“Naomi! We’re leaving,” Minions one and two announced, backing away as swiftly as their nice shoes could carry them. “We can walk to school.”

“Fine. Leave then,” Naomi snapped. “But don’t think this changes anything. You’re nothing, Loren Connors.”

But that was the whole point. She was nothing—hell, she strived to be nothing.

“But, hey,” Naomi added with a cruel smile of mocking perfection. “Like mother like daughter—”

Snap!

It was something internal. Some intangible muscle right there in the pit of her stomach that cracked at the comparison. Like daughter, like…

Mother.

Her mother had been beautiful, happy, young, carefree—before life and sorrow beat her down. Loaded her with pain that she couldn’t bear. Couldn’t escape, except for one way out…

In the pit of her soul, Loren knew that she wasn’t like her mother.

She wasn’t brave.

She was weak. Too weak to fight. Too weak to die.

Until now.

Her vision went red. Insanity, Loren thought. She had just gone insane.

Lost her damn mind.

She once read in a book that one of the signs of schizophrenia was alternate perceptions of reality. You saw things that weren’t there. Heard things…

But Loren doubted that description included launching yourself at your enemy with your hands drawn like claws.

And,she was pretty confident that when most people succumbed to schizophrenia, they didn’t growl. They didn’t bare their teeth like fangs and…snarl.

At least, for the first time in her life, as she raked her nails along the perfect skin of Naomi Tanner’s face, the blood on her fingers wasn’t her own.