The whiskey stings my lips. A burning sensation travels down my throat. The whiskey travels to my stomach, turning it sour. We all just got back to the house. My mind is a mess. Julian was the last one to come through the door.
“Another one,” I demand, banging my mug on the counter. My voice sounds so hoarse. Brody tilts the bottle and pours more in. His breath smells strongly of the same whiskey. I have lost track of how long the two of us have been in the kitchen. “Apparently, we are in the business of taking on gangs.” I say with wide eyes. Snake eyes and hipster hands circle around in my mind.
“Apparently,” Brody says, raising his eyebrows. He tilts the bottle of whiskey and pours the brown liquid into my chipped mug. “I think it calls for a raise in wages, personally. Ya know, more risk of injury.” He chuckles. Brody places the almost-empty bottle back onto the counter.
“You sound upset,” I say.
“Yeah, of course, I am Ruby. I don’t pride myself on being part of the bad guys club.”
“Good to know.” I smile.
“Hey, what are you guys drinking?” Madison’s manically chipper voice bounces into the kitchen.
A sharp twinge materializes in my head and spreads down my spine. I quickly wrap my furious thoughts around the mug and push it in her direction. The mug shatters against the faded blue wall, drenching it with whiskey. “Are you trying to get us all killed?” I yell. I’ve lost my head. Great.
“Remember who you are speaking to you when you address me,” Madison says in a snarl. Her contented expression has disappeared behind a wrathful scowl. Her harsh, calculated voice travels to my ears.
“Fuck that! We are your crew. You left us out to hang. You planned on hitting up those places. You knew who the money belonged to.”
“Now, you need to slow down,” Madison says. Her eyes are wide and furious. Her pale, freckled face narrows with anger.
“She’s just drunk,” Brody says, waving one hand back and forth to defuse the situation.
“Not nearly drunk enough to not know what I’m saying. You’re fucking us, and you don’t even care!” It wasn’t my intention to yell. So much for Brody’s attempt to calm the situation. “Somewhere along the tracks, you got all caught up in this power struggle you created in your head. But you’re gonna lead us into all this shit without even telling us? We’re in it now. What is your ultimate plan? I know you have one. Enlighten me.” Madison got so focused on wealth and power once our crew brought in Tolkin. She’s pushing us harder and making us do worse.
“Who are you to ask me that?” Madison says, returning with a louder voice.
“Your right hand, that’s who!” I turn to Brody. His face is frozen in a surprised expression. “You need me. That’s why I’m still around.”
“You are treading on a thin line right now,” Madison says, tilting her head to side. “It will all make sense soon.” Her eyes bore into mine. Through tight lips, she says, “I have no problem killing you.” A smirk dances across her face.
“I call your bluff,” I say.
“Then you mark your grave,” Madison hisses. Her rigid bangs hug the arc of her eyebrows. Her blood-red lips rest together in a tight pucker.
“I’m not afraid of you.” I stare into her dark eyes. Julian stands closer to Madison. He watches me carefully. I have just drawn a line in the sand.
“I would be.” Madison glowers. “We’re in this together now. Are you saying I can’t count on you?”
“Of course you can count me. Can I count on you?” I bite down hard on my bottom lip. I’m not sure what to do. It feels like the off-white linoleum is growing closer to me. My head spins.
“Yes. I will lead you,” Madison lies.
“Okay then,” I say. I could stop her heart right this second. Madison knows what I’m capable of. What makes her so confident I won’t kill her? Why won’t I kill her? My soft side pulls me down. Some of these people gave me life in many ways. If I left, where would I go?
“Your boyfriend needs an assist,” Tolkin says. Hatred pours off his tongue.
“Why can’t he come get me himself?” I ask, breaking my gaze with Madison. Brody’s uneasiness soaks into my back.
“Because he’s puking all over himself,” Tolkin says. “Had a bit too much party favor.” Tolkin shakes his head at me like this is my fault.
“You’re such a dirtbag! You get him all fucked up and leave him, hoping I will take care of him. You are scum.” I push past Madison.
“And you’re a fraud,” Tolkin spits. A smooth smirk spreads across his chapped lips. There is no way he could know I let the girl live. Is there? I’m just gonna shake that one off. I shove Tolkin aside and make my way out of the kitchen.
The strong permanent marker smell thickens. The stairs creak and moan under my quick feet. Tristan’s gags and coughs turn my stomach. Worry fills up all the empty spaces in my bones. My feet touch the small, square landing at the top of the stairs
My eyes can’t find him right away. I thought he would be in the bathroom.
“Help,” Tristan chokes out.
I take the quick left into Julian’s room, following Tristan’s voice. He is lying on the floor, his feet bent to the side. Oh, shit! My heart aches. I kneel down quickly and grab his shoulders. I turn him on his side, getting his face out of the puke. I crouch close and place my hand on his forehead. It sticks to his skin. He feels so clammy. “Come on, babe. Let’s get you to the bathroom,” I say. Panic rises in my chest. The fight with Madison is now a million miles away.
“Ruby?” Tristan’s head wobbles to the side. His eyes are closed.
I grab his hands. “Yes, it’s me. Took a little too much tonight?”
“When did you start hating me?” Tristan whimpers. His eyes roll back. I smack him. His eyes snap back at me.
“Stay with me, T. I don’t hate you. I wish you wouldn’t do this to yourself.” I don’t want him to die. I don’t want us to end like this.
“Don’t leave me,” Tristan pleads. My heart is breaking. I stand, trying to pull him up with me.
“Can you stand up, baby?” My voice is soft. I tighten my grasp around him. He says nothing. “I can’t pick you up by myself. Can you help me?” My voice wavers. He says nothing. He closes his eyes. My arms give with his limp body.
“Can I help you bring him to the bathroom?” Brody’s voice breaks my desperation. He is standing at the foot of the stairs. His eyes hold only sadness—not an ounce of judgment.
“Please,” I say, allowing my eyes to close for just a moment. I’m so relieved. Our eyes meet. Right now, he and I are just tending to a person we both care about. Brody puts his hands under T’s armpits and slowly lifts him to a standing position. T’s knees stiffen slightly.
“Baby, move your legs.”
His soft blue eyes look into mine.
“Can you move your legs?” I ask, my voice cracking.
“My shirt is wet,” Tristan says. His voice is so weak.
“Yeah, it is. We’ll take it off in the bathroom. Help us take you to the bathroom.”
T closes his eyes. He moves his legs forward. He’s following instructions; that means he will be okay, right? I put my hands on either side of T’s torso. His ribs poke at my fingers.
“Keep walking. Can you open your eyes? Can you look at me?”
Tristan’s head points down. His hair hangs over his face. “Is that Tolkin?” His voice is broken up and horse.
“It’s Brody,” I answer. They both sigh. The bathroom smells of urine and mold. “Bring him down slowly.” Brody and I begin to bring Tristan to the warped linoleum. His legs fall limp. He stumbles toward the sink. Brody and I catch him. We ease him to the ground.
“Thanks, Brody,” I say. My cheeks feel hot.
“You all right now?”
“Yeah, just don’t go too far.”
“Will do,” Brody says. He backs up and leaves the bathroom.
I wrap my fingers around the bottom of Tristan’s navy-blue shirt. He lightens his arms and brings them up. I pull the shirt over his head. His pale, boney chest yells at me—screams that he is in trouble. He looks so weak and helpless—the complete opposite of how I used to see him. I used to believe I couldn’t exist without him. Now, I’m trying to figure out how I can stay with him.
“The toilet is right here. I’ll be right back,” I say. I stand and yank the towel off the doorknob. I give it a quick smell. It’s not so bad. I’m not sure where I could get something better. I grab the metal knob, turn on the water, and place the towel underneath the faucet briefly.
T gags and coughs, and I hear something hit the water. He needs to be okay. I dig my fingers into the towel, ringing out the excess water. I swoop back down to his side and pat his forehead. He moans. White foam chokes out of his mouth.
“It’s okay. You’re okay.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. He has to be okay. Tristan lets out another moan. I wipe off his mouth, and he rests the weight of his head on my shoulder. I allow myself to enjoy his touch and close my eyes. It’s gonna be a long night.
*This is an excerpt from The Highly Capable*