The slight brunette on the floor blinked, arms curled tight around her knees.
"Miss, are you okay?"
She continued to stare into space. The voice was too murky to comprehend. She was underwater, drowning in her own heartbeat.
"Jones, come here. I think she's in shock."
There was so much noise. Too much. Too much. There was a dead girl in front of the counter. Right over the counter. Dead. Hair as red as the blood around it. Dead girl. Dead girl.
The words rang in her head, taunting her sanity away. Dead girl. Dead girl.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Her boss was going to be so angry. Would she loose her job? She'd let herself be robbed. Who robs a bakery? Someone who shoots a red haired girl. Blood haired girl.
Dead girl. Dead girl.
Her lips trembled, tears hot down pale cheeks. She didn't notice. Didn't notice the hand coming over her shoulder until the face crouched down into her eye-line after it. Green eyes blinked rapidly at a soft expression.
"Hey," the man soothed, breaking through the rushing in her ears. "Can you tell me your name?"
She licked her lips. They wouldn't move. What was her name again? "Ro-," she croaked. Voice hoarse as if she'd been screaming. Maybe she had. She couldn't remember. Clogged with panic, fear, she whispered instead. "Rory. Flynn." She tried to clear her throat. "Aurora Flynn."
She began to fall into herself when the kind face asked another question. She didn't hear. He repeated it.
"I'm going to bring you somewhere safe, okay?" Not a question. He held out his other hand to her. She glanced at it and closed her eyes.
Dragging out any and all courage she had left, she let go of her legs and grabbed it. It was her only way out of this hell. Away from this corner of insanity.
Dead girl. Dead girl.
The man shouldered her away from where the blood girl was, blocking any view or glimpse she could have had. She looked behind her anyway.
And looked away.
Dead girl. Dead girl could have been me.
She shuddered. It could just have easily been her. Behind the bakery counter instead of in front. But it wasn't.
I'm alive. I'm alive.
She kept up the mantra, blocking all reality around her, using it as a shield, until she found herself staring at her grandmother in a small office. She could faintly remember getting there—the blur of lights, sounds, and conversations. She didn't know how much time had passed. All she knew was that she was alive, and her grandmother was standing in front of her.
"Aurora!" The anxiety stretched across the old woman's face emphasized the years, and the stark relief was as instantaneous as the sudden arms wrapped around her. The familiar smell of vanilla calmed her nerves, and her mind began to relax. "My goodness, girl, way to scare a woman to death."
Rory blocked the mental image of the girl's vacant expression as she lay sprawled across the tiled floor of the bakery. The last glimpse of the girl that could have been her. A bloody mess and empty body.
"I'm so glad you're alright." The woman pushed back to get a good look at her granddaughter. The freckles on her face were dark against the drained complexion, green eyes dull and red rimmed, curly brown hair loose and tangled—the poor girl was terrified. "Oh, honey. Come here." She tugged the girl back into her embrace and held her there. If she'd lost her...
But she didn't.
"She was shot in the chest," Rory mumbled into her grandmother's shoulder. "Right in front of me. It was like...like the men didn't even want the money, really. I'd already given it to them. All of it." She swallowed a heavily. "And then the one pulled out this little gun, so tiny." So deadly. "And...pointed it at her. She wasn't even two feet away and he just shot her right in front of me."
She remembered the girl's eyes widening in fear, horror, and then shock. The bullets had knocked her back, and then she'd crumpled. Like a doll. An awful, bullet riddled doll.
"It was...It was just..." They'd laughed together. Some joke about cake while she'd rung her up. She couldn't remember it anymore. Couldn't remember.
"It's okay, honey." Her grandmother began stroking the back of her head. "You're okay."
Rory didn't believe it, but found comfort in the thought. For a second, curled in her grandmother's arms, she could almost think she was normal. Unaffected. An outsider. There was no dead girl. No bakery. Just regular, boring Aurora Flynn.
But that girl was gone. Almost as if a part of her had died right there on that bakery floor, too.
She reluctantly drew away from the embrace and looked at the officer in front of her.
"Miss Flynn, I'm going to need to ask you a few questions. Basic procedure."
Hannah rubbed her eyes and felt a rare headache coming on. "Yeah. Okay." She held tight onto her grandmother's hand. Procedure. Easy. Then she could go home.
Home. It sounded like a far off dream.
ONE YEAR LATER
"Can you believe it?"
Rory squinted at the recipe in front of her, then back at the mixing bowl in her arm. She lifted the wooden spoon out to take a quick taste. "What," she mumbled, her mind already falling back into the recipe. Something was missing.
"Our final year of hell school. One more year and we're out, baby!" She gave a quick squeal.
"Oh." Rory drew her attention from the missing ingredient and recalled what Hana had said. "That's right." She didn't see what there was to be excited about, really. Once they were out, there was only more school. More work. What was the point?
"Well? Aren't you pumped? This is going to be the best year ever!"
Rory couldn't help the small smile at her friend's blind enthusiasm. "Isn't that what you said about the last one?"
Hana shrugged. "It was true then, too."
Rory shook her head and passed the spoon across the kitchen island. "Does this taste good?"
She received a deadpan stare as the spoon switched hands. "When does it ever not taste good, Ror?" Hana took a quick lick and grinned. "See? Very yummy."
Rory pouted and snatched the utensil back. She still thought something was missing. Maybe a bit more vanilla...
Hana watched as her friend's mind slipped back into her baking and knew she had to act quick, or she'd never get a word through the cloud around that girl's head for another week. "Hey!"
Rory lifted her head.
"You know what else is yummy?" She waggled her eyebrows.
Rory rolled her eyes. "I swear to God, if the next words that come out of your mouth have anything to do with Jacob Williams, I will smack you with this spoon." The girl had been talking non-stop about the "hottie in electronics" since she'd spotted him. It seemed all she wanted to do was stick the poor guy in a relationship with Rory so they could "double-date". As if the guy was a cure-all-ails magic band-aid.
Rory didn't need a boyfriend. What she needed was a bit of isolation. A person would think they could get it in a busy city. Hana clearly hadn't got the memo.
"I pinky swear, scout's honor, that I will not mention Mr. Cutie's name." Hana held up her hand in honesty. "But you should note, he was the first that came to mind." She winked.
"Okay, okay, Miss Grumpy Pants. What I was going to say is that a certain someone's handsome step brother came into town the other day. Michelle told me the boy is way fine. And you know how picky that girl can be with her rating. So by fine, I'm thinking dreamy. I think we should stalk him."
Rory put down her bowl on the marble island and stared at her friend. She slowly narrowed her gaze and then shook her head. "What?"
"I know!" Hana tossed her braid behind her shoulder. "It would be so much fun. Are you going to be done soon? Nora is going to meet up with us at the High Level Diner around five. Apparently, he works there. And I've got just the right connections to get him as our server. Please? Please, please, please, please?"
Rory pursed her lips at her friend, wondering about the girl's sanity. "I don't know where you got this idea that I want to go anywhere, or that I care about boys-" She held up a finger to pause Hana's opening mouth. "Or that I would freely stalk someone. Are you insane?"
"Rory," Hana whined. "Don't be a party pooper. We won't really stalk him. I just want to see him. Michelle said dreamy! Michelle!"
She could have cared less what Michelle thought. But she had been neglecting Hana a bit. If she did go, she guessed she wouldn't have to leave her kitchen again until school started. Otherwise she would never get this recipe done. Hana was known for her persistence. If she didn't go now, she would be made to go later.
And she still didn't know what the missing ingredient was anyway.
"Calm down. I'll go."
Hana jumped out of her chair and punched her fist into the air. "Yes!"