Tough Enough

By: M. Leighton

PROLOGUE


Katie



Five years ago

Something is prodding me to wake up. Like an insistent finger poking my shoulder and someone whispering, “Wake up, wake up, wake up.”

But I don’t want to. I only want to hide. Hide from the light, hide from the world, hide from reality. I turn deeper into unconsciousness, but there’s no rest for me there.

Wake up, wake up, wake up.

A dull pain begins to spread down my left side and sounds that were a distant backdrop only moments before come closer, closer, closer. One by one, I can make them out.

Sirens.

Metallic clattering.

Strange voices.

Screaming. Awful screaming.

It sounds so familiar, that scream. That voice, although I can’t figure out why. The answer is fuzzy, like the face that swirls behind my eyes.

Distorted. Mocking. Cruel.

The face belongs to Calvin.

Panic swells within me, forcing me toward wakefulness. I don’t want to go, don’t want to wake. I claw and scratch. I dig in with my heels, with my hands, but nothing can stop my ascent.

Agony rushes in. It steals my breath and sweeps over me like flames, licking at my skin, turning the air to napalm.

More screaming, only this time I recognize the voice. I know it. I’ve listened to it my whole life.

It’s mine.

And then I remember.

Just before the blackness welcomes me back.

• • •

I rouse again, despite a gut instinct that tells me not to.

I wake to harsh voices, shouted commands and muffled road noise.

The face is still there, still there behind my eyes. Taunting me, haunting me. Smug and satisfied.

Horrific pain radiates from the left side of my body. It sears its way across my nerves, gaining strength, gaining momentum until I can’t fight the blackness.

So I don’t.

• • •

My eyelids flutter open. I see white metal above me, the dark head of a man beside me. I’m lying on my back. He’s sitting to my right. I don’t know who he is or what he’s doing. I don’t even know where I am. All I know is that something is wrong. Terribly wrong. I know it. I can feel it, like frantic fingers picking at my consciousness, picking away the scab. Tearing away the blindfold. Luring me into awareness.

But I can’t go back yet. Not yet. So I turn away. I retreat into the nothingness.

• • •

Seconds, minutes, hours pass. Time has no real meaning. It’s only a series of disjointed sights, sounds and feelings. Fear. Dread. Pain.

Excruciating pain.

And aloneness, even though I know I’m not alone; I’m far from alone.

I hear dozens of different voices now. Sounds, too. Beeps. Thumps. Scrambling. And I can smell. Something awful, putrid even, mixed with the chemical scent of a hospital.

I can’t focus on it, though. The pain is what overwhelms it all. It’s nearly unbearable, like my left side is trying to secede from the rest of my body. Nerves tearing away from skin, muscle ripping away from tendon. Flesh falling away from bone.

So I run.

I run into the deepest part of my mind, the part that refuses to participate with the outside world. I hide there until the pain stops.

Only it never stops. It never stops stalking me from the shadows.





ONE


Katie

“You’re not the least bit excited to be putting makeup on the Kiefer Rogan?”

Mona and I slow our walk as we approach my office. I use the term office loosely since mine is really just four thin walls that house a makeup chair, a bank of lighted mirrors and a wraparound counter. Two of the four walls are covered with shelves that hold the supplies of my trade—a wide array of everything from pancake makeup to prosthetic noses. It’s not fancy, but it feels as much like home as any place does.

I turn my eyes to Mona’s cornflower blue ones. She is the only person who might even come close to being called my best friend. “Am I excited to be putting makeup on Kiefer Rogan?” I repeat. Am I oddly nervous? Yes. Am I extremely uneasy? Yes. But am I excited? “Not even a little bit,” I reply sincerely.

Her full lips fall into a disbelieving O. “Wow! I can’t even imagine not getting excited over a guy like him.”

“He’s just a guy,” I declare with a shrug. I wish I felt as casual as the gesture indicates. Kiefer Rogan is just a guy, but guys like him spell trouble. For that reason alone, I can’t really be as nonchalant as I pretend to be. There’s no point in dwelling on it, though, so I try to redirect her. “Besides, why should you care anyway? You’ve got a boyfriend.”

She grins, which makes her look even more innocent than her platinum hair and eyes that are too big for her face. Physically, Mona is the perfect split between a Barbie Doll and a Precious Moments figurine, all with a touch of clueless porn star thrown in for good measure. She can work her assets like nobody’s business, but she does it in such a way that doesn’t make her detestable. That alone is quite a feat. She’s very genuine, too, which is one of the things I like most about her. That and the fact that we are polar opposites in practically every way.

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