“Well, you’ve gone and done it this time, haven’t you, girl?” I squinted, turning my head in an effort to find the source of the voice. The movement caused waves of pain, sharp and stinging, until even breathing hurt. “How many times did your daddy and I tell you to not go wandering off into trouble?”
“Mama?” I croaked the single word, my throat dry and aching.
“Isn’t her mother dead?” LaLa’s voice broke into my consciousness, overlapping with the running diatribe coming from Mama. “Mike, you need to keep her still. I’m going to have a difficult time with this as it is.”
“Cari, you need to hold still.” Mike’s voice and Mama’s blended together, her cool touch somehow merging with his shaking hands where he pressed on my shoulders. “We’re trying to help you here.”
I kicked out, my foot connecting with something. The grunt of pain did nothing to help my rising panic. “Let me go, let me go, let me go.”
“Steven, could you stop limping around like a fucking baby and help here?” A second set of hands joined Mike while two more grabbed at my legs. “She’s already lost a lot of blood, every time she struggles she loses more.”
“Baby, I’m sorry. I can’t let you go.” Salty liquid splashed on my lips, the rest of his tears filling Mike’s voice. “I know it hurts and I’m sorry but I can’t let you go.”
“I’m trying, baby girl. Your daddy and I are trying so hard to let you go. It’s not like we don’t have better things to do other than ride herd on you.” Mama’s voice echoed in my ears, somehow managing to drown out every other noise. “But you never stop being a parent, baby girl, and that’s a cold, hard fact.”
“Why can’t I decide?” Tears rolled down my cheeks—mine, Mike’s, maybe Mama’s. “I just want to be able to choose.”
“You do what you have to do, baby girl.” Lips pressed against my forehead, the pressure familiar and bittersweet. “You always did. No point in anyone thinking you’re going to change now.”
Heat blazed through me and I drew in a deep breath, screamed it back out at the top of my lungs. The sound tapered off into a whimper and I tried to struggle, to be anywhere but there, but too many people held me down now. The second blast of heat robbed me of even the ability to scream even as my head began to clear. The third and final burst made pinpricks of light explode behind my closed eyelids even as the dark began to spin dizzily.
“Oh, hell no.” My eyelids flew open at the sudden crack of a palm against my cheek. LaLa stared down at me, her eyes narrowed, the look in them somewhere between worried and annoyed. “You do not get to pass out after I just saved your life. You better stay awake long enough to at least say thank you.”
“Fuck you.” I flicked my tongue over my lips to moisten them, worked up enough energy to bare my teeth at her. “Sideways.”
“Close enough.” Her hands probed at my chest, pinching in some spots, poking at others. “You should know, you’ve been flashing a dozen or so people for the last half hour.”
“If Mason is here, I’ll kill him.” I rolled my neck, sighing when my cheek came into contact with the cold cobblestone. “I’ve managed to keep my tits away from his lecherous eyes all my goddamn life.”
“Then this would be the wrong time to mention that Mason is holding down one of your legs, wouldn’t it?” LaLa centered my head, opening my eyelids wide with her fingers. “And don’t worry, I have a feeling he was too distracted by the blood and ribcage and jagged skin to really get a good look at what you’ve got.”
“Let me up.” I pushed against the hands again, found myself still held firmly in place. “Let me up, goddamnit.”
“If you pass out, I’m letting you hit your head. And when you wake up, you’ll have a bitch of a headache.” Still, LaLa gestured to the men, easing away from me. The pressure on my limbs disappeared and I slowly struggled to a sitting position. Behind me, LaLa snorted. “Showoff.”
“I repeat, fuck you.” I turned to look at Mike, his face solemn and tear streaked. “I want to go out to the farm.”
“Cari, it’s late, and you really shouldn’t be moving so much--.”
Bending my knees, I leaned forward, bracing my palms against the ground. Ever so slowly, I rose, swaying for a moment when I finally stood straight. My head spun and my stomach churned, my hands shaking as I clutched the tattered remains of my shirt around me. “I’m going. You can either go with me or I’ll get there on my own.”
Mike stared at me, finally rising from his crouch after a long moment. “Fine.”
As I limped back to the church and his car, Mike walking silently beside me while the others trailed behind, I replayed my conversation with Mama. And tried to decide if she’d been stating the obvious or giving me permission to do something that might ruin everyone’s life.