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Sheltered

By:Charlotte Stein

r in his undershirt and shorts.

Van actually said aloud, “Holy shit.”

And in truth, she didn’t want him to do anything else. No one could be expected to do anything else, in the face of this. The thing in front of them didn’t even look like her father—it looked like a hobo had taken possession of her father’s body, and forced him to never brush his hair.

She couldn’t move, for a moment. Couldn’t go for any of the doors, the way she’d planned. She simply stood with her hand still attached to Van’s, staring at the man who’d been her father, twenty-four hours prior.

And then he coughed, and straightened, and tried to say her name in an authoritative sort of voice, and somehow all of those things were worse. They were so much worse. What had happened here?

“Eve,” he said, again. This time with more force, but somehow still pathetic, all the same. Twenty-four hours without her mother, and this was what he’d been reduced to.

“Come on, Evie,” Van said, and that grounded her a little. It made it easier to form words, without dying of fear.

“What happened to you?” she went with, because that was the thing she wanted to know the most.

“I’m ill,” he said. “You’ve made me ill, whore.”

Of course she expected the latter, and it hardly hit at all. Not even when he spat it again, hands shaking, half-risen in anger—that redness creeping all over his face. But God, she didn’t expect the first word.

Ill. As though she really had that much power. As though all along she could have pulled a string, and turned him into this.

“I think you’d be wise not to call her that again, Mr. Bennett,” Van said, in a voice she’d never heard before. Apparently, both men were turning into different creatures right before eyes, and the one Van had chosen was scary as fuck.

His tone sounded like that molten metal, hardened into steel. His hand gripped hers tightly, but only to maneuver her until she was almost behind him.

“Don’t you talk to me, boy,” her father said. Then fiercer, stronger, “If you think you can walk into my house, and take my daughter—”

He didn’t get to finish his sentence. Mainly because he tried to do something very bad, on the word daughter. He took a lumbering step forward, hand suddenly raised, and even though she could hardly process any of this she knew where that hand was going.

It just didn’t quite get there.

Van smacked it away, as though her father’s fist was no more than a fly.

“Seriously?” he asked, in that same spitting-bullets tone. “You’re going to try to hit her, in front of me? And you think that what—I’m going to let you get away with that?”

Her heart had gone past some pounding point, and all the way back around into deadly silence. If she’d keeled over, she wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. All she could see was Van’s back, and he was right up in her father’s face, and oh God, what if her father stabbed him?

What if, what if?

“Van,” she said, as she tried to grab his hand back. Pull him away, before it was too late.

But he wasn’t listening.

“I tell you what. You want to hit someone? Try hitting me.” He shoved forward again and this time she could see, clearly. He’d butted up against her father, like some sort of mad bull. “Go on. I dare you to do it. I dare you to try. Because I’d love nothing better than to take your fucking head off.”

She held her breath, waiting. Any second now, and her father would do it—she even had a plan for it. She was going to rush forward the moment he laid a hand on Van, and claw his goddamned eyes out.

But it didn’t come to anything like that. Not anything like it. Instead her father sagged all in one big rush, shoulders going down. Face like an emptied bag. She saw it all as clear as anything as Van stepped away, and took hold of her hand once more.

“That’s what I thought,” he said, then after a moment, “Don’t come near your daughter again. She isn’t your daughter anymore. She’s a stranger. If you see her on the street, you don’t know her. You look the other way, understand?”

She had to hold in the gasp, when her father nodded.

And then they just walked right out of his house, as though nothing had ever happened.

It wasn’t as though the bike scared her. She’d made it all the way from the city to her once-was-home on the back of it, without being whipped off into some bushes or a passing car. But it didn’t exactly steady her nerves, either—and especially after a confrontation like that one.

She couldn’t even believe they’d just had a confrontation like that, even as they set off. Van telling her it was okay, just before they did. That everything was okay now, it was fine, just hold on to me Evie, okay?

She did. She held on tight, face pressed into his back. A million fears still pumping through her as the bike throttled up between her legs. It had felt like being in a wind tunnel coming, and it had the same effect now.

Only somehow, it seemed a little different. After a moment of clinging to him and trying to shove the memories of what had just happened away, something happened. She could feel it, going through her—loosening knots as it went.

And though the sudden urge she had terrified her, she found herself doing it, anyway. She pressed hard with her knees and started to let go of Van’s back. Just a little. Just enough to see if she could do it.

She could.

She let go entirely and still stayed on the bike, as he gunned it down Narrowfoot Lane. Heart suddenly pounding in a different way altogether, everything in her letting go all at once. And when she raised her hands to the sky and felt the air running through her fingers, with no one saying stop or don’t or you can’t, she knew it clearly.

She was free. Finally free.

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