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Bring Me Back: Chapter 1

PHOENIX

Daily Affirmation: “I will stop worrying. I will learn to deal with my worries in a logical way.”


I stare up at the beige siding along the front of the house and blow out a heavy sigh.

It’s kind of funny, seeking refuge in the one place I’ve avoided for so long. Life always seems to turn out this way. You waste so much time and energy steering yourself away from a particular path, yet you end up on that path regardless.

A deep-orange rust covers the three metal birds hanging above the garage. Dad loved those birds. I told him they looked tacky, but he insisted they stay. So, my brother Tyler and I named them and it became a running joke.

I tap out a text to Tyler: Buffy, Willow, and Xander say hi. We wish you were here.

I kill the engine and let my head fall back against the headrest. I don’t know what I’m waiting for. I can’t sit in my car all day—I have nowhere else to go, and it’s twenty-six degrees outside. Besides, it’s not like Dad is going to come out to greet me. His wide smile flashes in my mind, and my cheeks push up the slightest bit. It was impossible not to smile whenever he was around. He illuminated any room he walked into. I swear, the world got a bit darker when he passed.

Cancer can go fuck itself.

I close my eyes, count back from ten, and then swing open the car door. I hoist my bags out of the back seat, lug them up the driveway, and I don’t stop moving until I’m twisting the key in the jiggly knob of the front door. Quick, like ripping off a Band-Aid, I step inside.

My eyes bounce around the entryway like a scared animal approaching a watering hole. Maybe if he didn’t die here, I’d feel differently. Maybe we all would. My mother hasn’t stepped foot in this house since his body was rolled out the front door, and my brother never looked back since he left after he graduated high school. I think that’s why Dad left this shore house to me. He knew I’d need it one day. Somehow, he knew this could be my safe haven.

He was the only one who always knew what I needed.

Grief sinks into my stomach like a lead ball, splashing the bile around. For years, Mom hounded me to sell this place. “You’re throwing away your money. It’s foolish.” But it wasn’t foolish to me, and I’m glad I stuck to my guns on this one because it feels right being here after everything I’ve gone through. It’s the only comforting thing I have left to hold on to.

I do a quick tour of the first floor. Eat-in kitchen where I used to watch Dad cook breakfast; living room with the brick fireplace we never lit because we only lived here during the summer; glass sliders that lead out onto the deck we’d jump off of every Fourth of July. Everything is exactly how I remember it, only now it’s cold and empty. The vivid memories with Dad have been drained of their color.

Everything might look the same, but everything is different.

My combat boots echo off the wooden stairs as I head upstairs to my old bedroom, keeping my head down as I walk past my parents’ room and focus on the thought of sleeping on a mattress bigger than a twin for the first time in almost two years. I drop my bags in the corner of the room and flop facedown onto the puffy white comforter.

My phone buzzes, and I scramble to get it out of my pocket. My heart sinks when Tyler’s name isn’t the one flashing across the screen, but only for a second. I clear my throat and try to mimic a cheery tone.

“Hey, Drew.”

Drew’s assertive voice blares through the speaker. “You’re free. Why do you sound so sad?”

I roll over onto my back and stare up at the ceiling. “Being free isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Sure, it is. Pizza, privacy, and porn, remember?”

“That was your list. Mine didn’t include porn.”

“Well, it should. Maybe that’s why you’re so damn depressed all the time.”

I smirk. “What are you up to?”

“You know damn well what I’m doing: A whole lot of fucking nothing. The question is, what are you doing? How does it feel to be out of the looney bin?”

“Don’t call it that.” My eyes roam around my bare bedroom. “In a way, it feels like I never left. The world is the same, but there’s more pressure now. Like I already fucked up once, so I need to do better this time.”

“Dude, you’re setting yourself up for failure if you think you aren’t going to make any mistakes from here on out. You need to be more like me. Lower the bar. Expect to fuck up, and then when you do something right, you’ll surprise yourself.”

A slight smile curves my lips. “What am I going to do out here without you and your prolific advice?”

“You’ll survive until I get out.”

Drew has been my friend for the last sixteen months while I was at Clearview. I don’t know how I would’ve survived that place without him. Not that it was so bad there; everyone was nice for the most part. But staying at a residential mental health facility isn’t exactly the same as staying at an all-inclusive resort in Cabo.

“What am I going to do out here? What am I going to do with the rest of my life? I don’t have a plan.” I slide my thumb along the scar on my left forearm. Some people bite their nails when they’re anxious. Some tap their feet. I rub the physical reminder of the lowest moment in my life.

“Stop touching your scar. And don’t tell me you’re not, because I know you are.” Drew clicks his tongue. “You’re not supposed to focus on the past, remember? Look forward. Never back, always forward.”

“Looking forward is what worries me. I have anxiety, remember?”

“You’ll figure it out. You need to give yourself some time. You just got out this morning, for Christ’s sake. You’re not going to have all the answers on day one, so tell your anxiety to fuck right off.”

If only it were that simple. I practice my deep breathing for a few seconds and try to slow my racing mind.

Focus on what you can control.

“What’s on your to-do list? I know you made one.”

I put Drew on speaker, and tap on my notes app. “I need to unpack, obviously, and I should stock up the fridge, so I’ll need to go grocery shopping.”

“Fuck that boring shit. Order a pizza and worry about substantial food tomorrow. You’ve been living on this organic free-range kumbaya chicken over here. Let yourself indulge on your first night out. Celebrate.”

Celebrate what? The fact that I had to be deemed stable enough to live among normal people again? Or the fact that my mother disowned me because she took my suicide attempt as a personal attack against her? Or how about the fact that my schizophrenic friend who has limited phone privileges managed to check in on me before my own brother did?

Drew’s voice cuts through my thoughts. “Hey, stay out of your head. You’re going to be okay, Nix. It’s just going to take some time to adjust.”

“Thanks for calling.” A pang of sadness pricks my heart. “I miss you already.”

“Good, you better. I used my one call for you, which means I can’t call the phone sex hotline later.”

“Eww. Please don’t tell me you actually do that.”

“I wouldn’t have to if you were game. Come on, Nix. Talk dirty to me.”

I throw my head back and laugh. “Not a chance in hell.”

“Prude. I’ll call you tomorrow to check in. Have a slice of pizza for me.”

As soon as I end the call, I search for a nearby pizzeria and order a large pie.

While I wait, I log onto Facebook. Clearview had a strict policy against social media, so it’s been sixteen months since I’ve connected to the internet world. I used to be into scrolling through my feed. There’s something oddly comforting in seeing that everyone else’s lives turned out to be just as mediocre and meaningless as mine.

Notifications flood my account, all from people I haven’t seen or spoken to since high school nearly ten years ago:


Nicole Paisley: You should’ve died.

Roger Clementine: There’s always next time.

Jessica Armando: Selfish bitch.

Billy Jenkins: Her poor family.

Tarryn Desai: Loser couldn’t even kill herself the right way.

Jared Martino: The world would be better off without people like you.


Each comment pierces my heart like a bullet. I know I should stop reading them, but I can’t bring myself to look away. These are people I grew up with. People I sat next to in history class. People I worked on science projects with. These aren’t sad internet trolls living in dark basements with nothing better to do. They’re regular people with jobs and spouses and children.

And this is the way regular people view depression and suicide.

I don’t know why I’m shocked. I was raised by someone just like this. Humans tend to shun and judge whatever they don’t understand. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

“Insensitive assholes.” I deactivate my account and delete the rest of my social media apps. I survived without it at Clearview, and the world really is more peaceful when you don’t have instant access to everyone’s thoughts and opinions.

Instead, I open the romance novel I’m in the middle of reading and try to convince myself that love isn’t one big crock of shit.


Bang!

It’s difficult enough falling asleep in a house by yourself when you have anxiety but being woken up by a loud noise only confirms your irrational fear that someone has in fact come to kill you.

I sit up, spine straight, and strain to listen. In Clearview, I learned all of the nighttime sounds, like the clanking of the vents whenever the heat was about to kick on, or the cries of the patients in need of sedatives, and the differing footsteps of the aides making their rounds. But I can’t identify where this bang came from, or what caused it.

I have three choices:

I can call the police. But I don’t know if I’m in danger yet, and it might be for nothing. I’d hate to wake the neighborhood with sirens and lights over a pan falling in the kitchen cabinet. Not a great way to make a first impression.

Choice Two: I can jump out the window to escape the possible intruder. But if I broke my ankle, I wouldn’t be able to run away. Plus, the last thing I need is for someone to think I’m jumping off the roof to try to hurt myself again. I’ll be back at Clearview in less than twenty-four hours.

My last choice is my least favorite: I can be a big girl and go downstairs to find out what the bang was.

After weighing my options, I grab Tyler’s old baseball bat—the one I found in the closet earlier and propped against my nightstand in case I needed it for a moment like this—and tiptoe out of the bedroom.

It’s fine. It’s probably nothing.

Or it’s an escaped convict here to murder you.

No, that’s not helpful. Maybe a bird flew into the window.

Birds don’t fly at night, you idiot.

Shit. That’s actually true.

I peer over the railing at the top of the staircase, and moonlight spills onto the tile from the open door—the front door that was locked shut before I went up to bed. It’s an intruder. It has to be. How else does the front door magically swing open in the middle of the night? My heart races. I need to get back to my bedroom so I can call the police. But before I can move, a dark figure appears at the bottom of the stairs.

“Hey!” His deep voice thunders, shaking me to my core.

My knees lock up, and I stand there frozen.

He bolts up the stairs, taking them two at a time to get to me.

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

I shriek.

I panic.

Then I throw the bat.

I legit throw the only weapon I have at the crazed killer.

Not the smartest move, but it ends up paying off. The bat cracks the man in the head and sends him tumbling back downstairs, buying me time to run and lock myself in my bedroom. I grab my phone off the nightstand and dial 911. The operator promises someone will be here soon, so I hide in the closet and pray the maniac doesn’t kick down my door before the cops get here.

I’m not waiting long before I hear muffled voices. I creep across the room and press my ear against the door until a booming voice says, “Ma’am, this is the Beachwood Police. I’m entering your home.”

That was quick.

I glance out the window, and my eyebrows press together. No police car with flashing lights. Not even an unmarked vehicle. The cul-de-sac is desolate at this hour.

It’s not a cop. It’s the murderer trying to trick me!

“Nice try,” I yell through the door. “I know you’re not the police. But you’d better get the hell out of here, because I called them and they’re on their way.”

“My name is Officer Russo.” His footsteps are slow and heavy on the stairs, and his voice gets louder as he ascends. “I received a call about an intruder. I can show you my badge if you open the door.”

“Where’s your car?”

The hallway light flicks on, shining through the sliver of space under the door. “I live next door in the gray house to your right. Dispatch sent me to check it out before sending anyone else.”

“Did you see the man downstairs who broke into my home? He needs to be arrested.”

“Yes, ma’am. I saw him. You gave him a pretty nice bump on his head.” His tone hints at amusement. “You said this is your home. Can I please see your ID?”

I snatch my purse off the floor and fish around for my wallet. “I’ll slip it under the door.”

After a moment of silence, he says, “Miss Bridges, the address listed on it does not match this one. Would you please explain why you think this is your house?”

Shit. “My name is on the mortgage, and the deed. But I just moved in today and haven’t had a chance to change my license.”

“Why don’t you open up so we can talk?” Then he adds, “My badge won’t fit under the door.”

“Is the intruder in handcuffs?”

“No, Miss Bridges. He—”

“I’m not coming out until he’s cuffed.”

He chuckles under his breath. “All right.”

A deep voice says, “You can’t be fucking serious.”

“You heard the lady. Place your hands behind your back.” Metal clanks together, followed by Officer Russo’s voice. “Okay, he’s cuffed.”

I crack open the door and peer into the hallway. An older man in uniform stands beside the younger intruder.

The man in handcuffs grunts. “This is ridiculous.”

And that snaps my last thread of patience. “What’s ridiculous is you breaking into my house and trying to attack me.”

“I didn’t attack you.” He glares down at me. “You’re the one who assaulted me.”

“No, I defended myself after you started chasing after me.” I gesture at the egg-sized mound on his forehead. “You got what you deserved.”

The police officer frowns, and his forehead creases. “This place has been vacant since we moved next door. Figured it belonged to the bank.”

The man in cuffs lowers his voice as if I’m not standing right in front of him. “How do we know the house is hers? Maybe she’s lying.”

I cross my arms over my chest. “I am not lying. I have the paperwork to prove it. And whether the house is mine or not doesn’t justify the fact that you broke in, so you don’t have a leg to stand on.”

Officer Russo claps him on the shoulder. “She’s got a point, kid. Care to explain what you were doing here?”

His jaw clenches. “Not now, Dad.”

My head jerks back as my eyes bounce between them. “Dad?”

“I’m Jim Russo.” He gestures to himself, and then to the asshole beside him. “And this is my son, James Russo.”

I almost laugh. The cop’s son is a criminal? “You’re kidding.”

“I’m sorry about my son’s behavior. If you can believe it, he had good intentions when he came into your house tonight.”

Good intentions for breaking into my house, and scaring the life out of me? I arch an eyebrow as my gaze roams over the cop’s son.

He towers over me. With a square jaw and dark features, he bears a strong resemblance to his father—except for his thick brown hair, which is unfortunate for him because he won’t be keeping much of it judging by his father’s bare scalp. He’s dressed in a white T-shirt with gray sweatpants—every woman’s dream, if they’re not also worn with the pair of handcuffs he’s sporting—and he’s as broad as his muscles are thick.

James Russo is one exceptionally good-looking criminal.

Figures.

“I think you owe her an explanation, James.” Officer Russo’s eyes soften with his voice as he addresses his son.

James drops his gaze to the floor and shifts his weight from one foot to the other in silence. “I was looking for my brother, and when I saw the light you left on in your kitchen, I thought…” He swallows before he pushes out the rest of the words. “I didn’t expect you to be here.”

“And there’s supposed to be an apology in there somewhere,” his father whispers loud enough for me to hear.

James’s jaw tics before he sets his eyes on me. “I’m sorry for scaring you.”

Damn. This guy barrels into someone’s house in the middle of the night in search of his brother, and mine can’t even shoot me a simple text to wish me luck on my first day out of a mental facility.

Curiosity urges my next question. “Why did you think your brother would be in my house?”

His father answers for him. “We haven’t seen him in a while. Sometimes he squats here instead of coming home. He—”

“Can you uncuff me now?” James cuts in.

Officer Russo gives me an apologetic smile as he unlocks the handcuffs. Without another glance in my direction, James turns around and heads down the stairs.

Officer Russo pinches the bridge of his nose. “He gets upset when his brother disappears like this.”

“He does this often?”

He shrugs like he doesn’t know what else to say. “My boy will turn up when he wants to be found. Always does.”

What does that mean? But it’s not my business to keep prying into his family drama. “If there’s anything I can do to help you find your son, please let me know. I watch a lot of Cold Case Files.”

Officer Russo chuckles. “That won’t be necessary.” He turns toward the staircase and pauses. “We’re a sorry attempt at a welcoming committee, but welcome to the neighborhood, Miss Bridges. If you ever need anything, feel free to come by. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like the idea of a young woman living here all by herself.”

Warmth pools in my chest. “You don’t have to worry about me, sir.”

No one else does.

After he leaves, I close the door behind him and wedge a chair under the damaged knob in an attempt to secure the house.

That fucker broke my lock.


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