A/N: added 3/14/08: a small prologue and a few corrected typos in the chapter itself. I tried to add just the prologue as a chapter but realized that I would have to replace Chapter 1 with this, Chapter 2 with Chapter 1, etc etc etc, so that's probably why you got an email but there was no chapter.

Rated M for language.

It wasn't supposed to end up like this. It probably wasn't supposed to even happen.

I curled my fingers around the chain of the swing and stared at the sun setting slowly behind the trees. The empty playground was lit in a rosy orange glow but I barely noticed it as I barely swung back and forth. The cigarette in my other hand burned but I didn't bring it to my lips. It was my fourth since I had sat down… I was finally slowing down. Some of the stress was gone.

The breeze rippled through the trees and pushed my hair back away from my face. I let go of the swing and wrapped my elbow around the chain instead, resting my face against it. I brought the cigarette to my lips, took a long slow drag, and then released it just as slowly. I flicked my eyes around to make sure I was still alone and then went back to staring off into the distance. I felt burn of tears start in my eyes but pushed them away.

I wasn't always like this.

My life feels like it's falling apart and my sister is getting married. These two events don't seem connected. But they are…

Allow me to show you. Let's start from the beginning.

Chapter 1

A piercing shriek emitted from the front seat went off, jarring me from staring blankly out the window in the backseat of the Jeep. You might guess that it was a fire alarm or maybe nails on a chalkboard… but no, you'd be wrong for both guesses. The shriek had come from my friend Nate's girlfriend, Tessa. She had giggled … for probably the nineteen thousandth time in the last hour.

I rolled my eyes, annoyed, and then thrust my hand into my purse, digging around until I found my lighter and pack of cigarettes.

Yeah, yeah, spare me… I know, I'm the stereotypical bad girl with the smoking, whatever… I'm hardly what you could call a bad girl. I'm actually in the top five percent of my high school senior class. I just picked up smoking when I was at parties. I only smoked when I was drinking… and when I was anything between annoyed and angry. That's why I needed a cigarette right then… my nerves were shot to hell.

"Hey," my cousin Cody said sharply, pulling his girlfriend Olivia slightly away from where she sat between us in the back of the car. Naturally, hey meant a variety of things for monosyllabic Cody, such as hello, quit, shut up, but in this instance, he meant it as, "Hey, I told you to quit that shit."

I rolled my eyes as I jammed the cigarette between my lips and stared him down defiantly as I lit it, putting down the window as I sucked in my first drag. There was no way that Cody was going to tell me for one second what to do, especially when I needed this cigarette like I did right now. I blew out the smoke out the window and then flicked off the ash on the end of it out onto the ground.

"You know smoking kills, right Ashley?" Tessa chirped from the front seat, turning to look back at me, grinning an extra wide, perky smile in my direction.

You have got to be kidding me. Was she trying to joke with me? I couldn't tell… it was hard to tell with the smile on her face.

I stared her down, incredulous, cigarette slowly burning out the window in the cold breeze. I shut my mouth that was hanging open, flicked my eyes down to where her thong was hanging out of her pants, and then answered flatly, "They say that crack kills too."

She flushed instantly and sat back in her seat, squirming around, fixing her pants. I smirked victoriously and sucked in another drag off my cigarette.

"Hey, give me one, Ash." Nate grunted from the front seat, reaching back behind him.

"Nate, baby, you know I have asthma." Tessa said pointedly, staring him down. Baby? I smirked, filing it away in my brain to tease him about it later.

As I watched Tessa glare at Nate a little longer then was probably necessary, I suddenly understood that the stare down was more for him calling me Ash rather then the cigarette. Although anyone with half a brain could realize that Nate was only with her for an easy hookup… everyone could see it. Even Cody, who was hardly the most observant person on the planet.

Everyone except Tessa, that is. But that's because she lacks big time in the IQ department.

"Hey Ashley, could you put it out?" Olivia asked me sweetly, sticking up for her best friend Tessa… yeah, now you understand, don't you? How this little obnoxious bitch walked into my life? By osmosis, my friend. Because she was around all the time, Nate decided he could no longer keep it in his pants. Why are they're together since he's hardly the steady girlfriend type? I'm not too sure… although ass undoubtedly has something to do with it.

"No." I answered her in a bored, final voice. Olivia was only barely more tolerable then Tessa… but just barely. She's not my favorite since she can be a manipulative bitch but she tries to be nice to me, mostly because she knows I wield a little, but enough, power over Cody.

"Maybe you should quit then," she blinked innocently in reply, smile on her face.

"Probably should." I agreed with a heavy sigh and then brought the cigarette back to my lips for another drag. Her smile fell when she realized that her words had no impact on me so she rolled her eyes and turned to Cody. But he was too busy looking out the other window at the grocery store in the distance.

You're probably wondering how I even ended up being fifth wheel to the four of them… that would be because my cousin Cody and I happen to be unusually close for cousins of the opposite sex so close in age. We've just always understood each other… plus I don't care about his guy-isms (the video games, burping, sports, etc). On top of that, I'm between boyfriends at this point.

I do, in fact, have other single friends I would much rather be spending time with. But my parents went out of town for the weekend and sentenced me to my aunt's house because of the party I threw the last time they were out of town. I mean, there was a small, tiny really, incident with accidentally dropping a lit cigarette onto the rug in the family room when I was really drunk… which left a scorched mark about the size of my head. And my parents, rather then focus on the bright side (that would be that the house didn't burn down), grounded me for a week, and wouldn't allow me to be in the house alone for any weekend from then on. Something about betraying their trust…

Not that what I was doing now wasn't any better. "Where is this guy?" Cody grumbled from his side of the car, tightening his arm around Olivia's shoulders, drawing her closer to him protectively. He was clearly worried… not that he would ever admit to it.

"He's only been gone five minutes, Cody, relax." Nate answered from the front seat, bored, and then asked again, "Could I get a cigarette, Ashley?" I didn't miss him using my full name but of course that didn't help sway her disagreeing with the smoking.

"You said you were going to quit!" Tessa squeaked indignantly in the front, smile off her face now, a pout in place.

"And I am." Nate answered her, still bored, but didn't withdraw the hand that was reaching back to me. Happy to piss off Tessa, I handed one over to him, and watched the scene unfold before me.

"Ashley…" Cody groaned when he realized what I had just done. He's not a big fan of Tessa either but, at the same time, who wants to listen to her bitching?

"You said you were going to quit, Nate!" Tessa whined as Nate lit up with his own lighter.

"And I will, I'm just craving one because I could smell hers back there." Nate shot back after taking a drag and exhaling quickly, sounding annoyed.

"You don't see me wasting my lungs away, smoking!" Tessa glared at me briefly over her shoulder but I just smirked back. "You both are doing this on purpose, just to piss me off!" she accuses both of us now.

"Hey, I'm not part of this." I put my hands in the air after blowing my smoke out the window again.

"Oh whatever, Ashley, you gave him the cigarette," she snapped back at me.

"He asked for one." I shrugged; sitting back in my seat then took a drag. "And what kind of friend would I be if I denied him?" I smiled at her beatifically before blowing my smoke out the window again.

Tessa glared at me coldly, then reached over, and yanked the cigarette out of Nate's mouth. "Hey!" he yelled as she turned and threw it out the window.

While I had to admire her gall, it was a bad idea on her part. "I want you to quit. Right now," she said flatly. I thought about advising her about how bad it was to be in a relationship where you want to change someone but decided at the last minute to shut my mouth. Just this once. Have you heard her bitching at the next level? Downright obnoxious.

They stared each other down for a long moment. "Ash?" Nate asked me finally in a restrained voice, not turning to look back, but rather staring at his girlfriend. Her eyes turned to slits as she tried to light his face on fire. "Would you give me another cigarette? Sorry the other one got wasted," he snapped at her.

"Nate!" Olivia gasped, clearly deciding that was uncalled for, so she was now standing up for her best friend.

"Come on, Nate…" Cody grumbled, shaking his head, not eager to hear more bitching.

"Here." I handed one over dutifully.

"Ashley!" Olivia and Cody both hissed at me at the same time.

"Thanks, Ash." Nate and I both noted the extra emphasis on my name with a smirk. He began digging around for his lighter again.

But our shared smirk was short lived. Tessa's hand shot out, slapped Nate, yanked the cigarette out of his mouth, and broke it in half before throwing it out her window.

"Tessa!" Nate exclaimed, instantly sounding pissed.

"Hey!" I exclaimed. I mean come on, I paid money for that, they don't grow on trees.

"You stay out of this!" Tessa snapped at me.

I shrugged and put the cigarette back in my mouth, about to take another drag, when Cody suddenly reached over, yanked it out of my mouth, and threw it out the window. "Cody!" I shouted at him, instantly pissed off as well.

"You told me you were going to quit this shit." Cody growled back at me.

"And I will, right after I kick your ass!" I lunged across Olivia, who squealed in protest, and went straight for his jugular.

"Oh, bring it on!" Cody yelled, catching me when I came close, and began shoving me back as I landed a few punches on him.

"CODY!" Olivia shouted, clearly not happy about being part of our wrestling match.

"Bet you regret teaching me how to punch well now, huh?" I growled, punching Cody again, who winced but tried to hide it as he appeared to be sharing the same thought as me.

"Hey man, what's up?" I heard a voice ask nonchalantly outside the car and pulled back to see that it was the guy we had asked to buy us alcohol. He had returned with two paper bags, our alcohol presumably inside.

I sat back in my seat as Nate said coolly, "Thanks, man," then jerked his thumb at Cody, who rolled down his window and took the bags from the man. "Keep the change," he said as he started the Jeep.

"Thanks," he answered, turning back to his car which was parked across the parking lot.

"Let's get the hell out of here." Cody ordered, suddenly alive. He's always paranoid about us getting caught with alcohol since we're all underage.

"We can't go to my house, my parents will find out!" Olivia instantly began to complain. Her parents were out of town for the weekend and we had delegated her house to be the party house… even though she had previously quite strenuously objected.

"There's only five of us and we'll clean up tomorrow." Nate answered blandly, turning right onto the street.

"But if they find out-" Olivia began, quickly starting to panic. That made two for paranoid people in the car.

"They won't find out." Nate soothed her calmly. "We'll clean up tomorrow and they won't even know that we were there. Right, Tessa?" he asked her pointedly but she was too busy sulking out the window to answer him. Nothing but maturity.

I opened my pack for another cigarette and found only one left, which just wouldn't do, given that there were three more hours left to spend with Tessa. "Hey, could you pull into the gas station?" I asked Nate, who signaled obediently at the next light across from the Shell station.

"Why?" Cody demanded suspiciously.

"Gotta pee." I answered him nonchalantly. When I felt his piercing stare on me, I turned to him and asked pointedly, "If that's okay with you? Or do you want to come inside and have a nice gossip with me?"

"Fine." Cody grumbled, sinking back in his seat.

"Thanks, Nate." I muttered once he pulled to a stop, grabbed my purse, and jumped out of the Jeep. I walked inside the Mini Mart and back into the bathroom.

It was a gas station bathroom so you can imagine how fresh it was. I made a face and I looked in the mirror as I dug into my purse, looking for my powder. You'd think, given how well my cousin and I got along, that I would be a complete tomboy, but I'm really not. I had on a black pea coat over a teal scoop neck t-shirt, jeans, and boots, with gold dangly earrings peeking out of my straight brown hair. I dashed a little powder over the oily spots on my face and then clicked it closed, leaning forward to examine my face in the mirror. There were small, barely visible lines around my mouth… Cody was right, I needed to quit, which I would.


I exited the bathroom and walked over to the counter. "Can I get a pack of cigarettes?" I asked the cashier. He grabbed the brand I asked for and then promptly carded me, which I was used to, having turned 18 just a few months before. I paid and thanked him on my way out.

Cody was glaring at me when I got back into the car. "Did you have a nice pee?" he snarked, sulking from his corner of the car. I didn't answer as Nate started the Jeep again.

"Baby…" Olivia cooed softly, leaning over to cheer him up. Oh gag me.

"Let's go get drunk!" Nate smirked as he guided the old Jeep out of the gas station.