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By:T. R. Ragan

leaving Karen in charge of her younger brother, she and her friends had drank, smoked weed, and snorted crack cocaine. After Sam threatened to call their parents, Karen's friends took Sam to the basement where they taped him to a chair, covered his eyes and mouth with duct tape, and poked him with cigarettes. But Karen hadn't realized what her friends had done until three days later when she picked up the telephone and called her brother's friend, thinking he was hiding out there. When Karen finally located Sam, he was a mess. Found on the floor, still fastened to the chair, he'd been bitten by a black widow. Karen knew this because when she found him the dead spider was clutched tight in his fist. Although Karen Crowley was clearly remorseful, she insisted no harm was intended. She was released and had already returned to her family in Europe.

Lizzy spotted Hayley in the distance. Hayley lifted her bandaged hand in acknowledgement and Lizzy walked that way. It had been four weeks since Jared had come to their rescue. Hayley had burn marks on her arms, legs, neck and face. Like Brittany, her hair had been cut short at weird angles so Lizzy had paid a stylist to cut Hayley's hair in a short side-swept haircut with a long sweeping bang. Although Hayley wasn't the type of kid who liked to be gushed over, Lizzy didn't care. She slipped an arm around Hayley's side and gave her a long squeeze.

Cathy had offered to take Hayley into her home, grateful for all Hayley had done to keep Brittany safe. After much coercing, Hayley had agreed. "How did you get here?" Lizzy asked.

"Your sister let me take her car."

"Wow, she must really like you."

Hayley smiled, but she sounded sad when she said, "I guess I sort of got carried away, didn't I? Getting caught by that lunatic and then letting him get the best of me. I really thought I could take him out."

"You never should have put yourself in danger, Hayley, but you did good. You did real good."

"So did your niece. She's a tough kid-you know-for a cheerleader."

Lizzy nodded and couldn't help but think of how proud Cathy had sounded when she told Lizzy how well Brittany was doing in school and how Brittany had made the cheerleading squad. The side of Brittany's face had required nineteen stitches in all, but her wounds were healing nicely and the doctors said the scars would hardly be noticeable by year's end.

Cathy had also taken Brittany to talk with Linda Gates so Brittany could discuss what happened and also talk about her feelings about her parents' recent separation. With everyone's support, Lizzy felt confident Brittany would be able to move forward and go on to live a normal, healthy life.

Hayley gestured toward Jared, who had parked his car. He was running late after stopping by the hospital to visit Jimmy. Jimmy was having tests done after discovering he had cancer.

Jared looked exceptionally handsome in his dark suit and tie.

"Are you going to marry that guy?" Hayley asked.

"No, I don't think so." Lizzy tilted her head for a better look at him. "Besides, he hasn't asked me."

They shared knowing smiles before Lizzy quickly changed the subject. "I was wondering if you would be interested in traveling to schools across the country. Together the two of us could teach children everywhere how to defend themselves against the evils of the world."

"Sounds like a job for a superhero," Hayley said.


Hayley rubbed her heavily bandaged hand. "I don't know. I'm not as courageous as I sometimes pretend to be."

Lizzy sighed. "Neither am I."

"I was really scared."

"I'm still scared."

"I'll think about it," Hayley said at last, and then she held up her bandaged hand. "But how will I ever play the piano again?"

Lizzy's face fell. "You play the piano?"

A twinkle lit up Hayley's eyes. "No. I'm just shittin' you."

Lizzy shook her head at the girl's off-the-wall humor.

"For the first time in my life," Hayley said, her voice serious, "I realized I wanted to live. How screwed up is that? Tortured by a madman and I suddenly want to live?" She huffed. "It doesn't make any sense."

"No," Lizzy agreed. "But if nothing else, it's kind of nice if all the bad can somehow make the good that much better."

"Yeah, I guess," she said as Jared approached. The three of them made small talk for a moment before Hayley said goodbye and headed for the parking lot.

"She's a trooper," Lizzy told Jared as they watched Hayley walk off.

"Yes, she is. Sorry I'm late," he added. "Looks like I missed Jessica's eulogy."

"She'll understand. She did a great job. How's Jimmy doing?"

"He starts chemo first thing in the morning. Prognosis is uncertain."

"That's a shame. I like Jimmy. And even if I didn't, I wouldn't wish cancer on anyone."

"I told him we'd drop by the hospital tonight."

Lizzy nodded as they weaved through the crowd to find Jessica. She knew Jared was having a hard time. Jimmy was his friend and mentor and he was very sick. And then there were Jared's parents and their failing relationship. Although he hadn't said much about his parents' separation, she knew it was something that weighed heavily on his mind. Although Jared was an adult, Lizzy knew firsthand the effects of a split household and how it could make a person re-evaluate and look at life a little differently.

They stopped a few feet from where Jessica and her brother were placing flowers at Mary's gravesite, giving them a chance to mourn privately.

"It's hard to believe it's finally over," Lizzy said to Jared.

Jared took her hand in his. "It's just beginning, Lizzy. Just the beginning."