Nobody f*cks with you in prison when you’re all tatted up.
Not a single, solitary soul.
It could have something to do with being big, too. I haven’t asked. I’ve just enjoyed it.
At home, it’s a completely different story. At home, everyone f*cks with me. I am the youngest of five, all brothers, they’re all as big as me, if not bigger, and they have even more tats than I do. You don’t get any points for being adorable. At my house, all you get points for is being a good person, contributing to the household, and supporting your family in every way possible.
It’s too bad I sucked at all the requirements. I f*cked things up royally two years ago.
I never should have done what I did. But I did it, and I did my time behind bars. I just hope that they can forgive me at home and not hold it over my head.
A hand clapped onto my shoulder jerks me from my internal dialogue. I look up and see my pro bono attorney, Mr. Caster. “Good to see you again, son,” he says as he sits down across from me. He opens a file folder in front of him.
“Why are you here?” I blurt out. I wince immediately, realizing how rude that sounded. But his brow just arches as he shakes his head. “I mean, it’s good to see you, sir.”
He chuckles. “Nice to see you, too, Pete,” he says. He takes a brochure from the folder and turns it so I can read it. “I have an opportunity for you.”
My oldest brother, Paul, says opportunities are other people’s problems. “What kind of opportunity?” I ask hesitantly. I open the brochure. There are pictures of horses and children and climbing structures and a pool with lots of splashing going on. I look up at him.
“This is a brochure for Cast-A-Way farms,” he says.
“And?” I ask.
“The opportunity,” he says. “I talked to the judge and told him you would be good for this program.” He raises his brow again. “I hope I’m not wrong.”
I hate to sound like a numbskull, but… “Not following, Mr. Caster.”
“I need a few good young men to help out at the Cast-A-Way camp for five days this summer.” He starts to reload his folder and closes it. “I read your file. I liked what I saw. I think you have potential. And you have the skillset that I need for this particular camp.”
Skillset? All I can do is ink people. I work at my brothers’ tattoo shop when I’m not behind bars. I don’t know how to do much else. “You want me to tattoo them?”
He chuckles again. “I need your signing ability,” he admits. “We have a camp every year for special needs kids. We have a very special boy this year who has MS, so he has a tracheostomy. He can’t speak. He signs. His mother’s going, but she can’t be with him twenty-four seven. So, I thought you might be able to come and help.” He shrugs. “There will also be a small group of boys there who are hearing impaired. You might work with them some, too.”
I look at Mr. Caster’s forearms and think I see a tattoo creeping out of his short sleeve dress shirt. He follows my gaze and shrugs.
“You think you’re the only one who wears your heart on your sleeve, Mr. Reed?” he asks, but he’s smiling.
I shake my head. “Your opportunity sounds interesting,” I say. “But I’m on house arrest for a year. I can only go to work and-or approved activities.”
“I already talked to your parole officer,” he says. “He’s in favor of it.” He crosses his arms in front of him on the table and leans on his elbows. “Only if you want to, though. No one is going to force you.”
I pick up the brochure and start to read. It actually looks kind of interesting.
“You’d be doing me a big favor,” he says. “I need another man present who can be a good role model for the boys we’ll be taking from the juvenile detention facility. They’ll be there working, getting service hours. I need someone to help me with them. That’s why I need you.” He narrows his eyes. “You’re big and scary looking enough.” He grins. “And your file looks good.”
“You’ll have the youth offenders at your camp? Working with the kids?”
He shakes his head quickly. “They’ll interact some with the kids. But not much. They’ll be there more to help with the daily living tasks – feeding the horses, moving hay, stacking boxes, doing odd jobs, helping with meals…”
I’ve never been afraid of manual labor. My brothers have drilled it into me from day one that I am going to work hard at everything I do, or I’ll have to answer to them. I heave a sigh. I’m slowly talking myself into this.
“There’s a perk,” he says. He grins.
“Do tell,” I say. I sit back and cross my arms in front of me.
“If your time spent at the camp goes well, I can ask for leniency with regard to your house arrest, based on merit.” He looks into my eyes. “If you earn it, that is.”
Wow. I could get leniency? “It’s for five days?” I ask.
He nods. “Monday through Friday.”
I heave a sigh. “When do we leave?”
He grins and holds out a hand for me to shake. I put my hand in his and he grips it tightly. “We leave tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow?” I gasp. I haven’t even gone home yet. I haven’t gotten to spend any time at all with my brothers.
He nods. “At oh-dark-thirty.” He smiles again. “You still up for it?”
“It can really shorten my sentence?” I ask.
He nods. “Maybe. It’s up to the judge. And depends on how things go at camp.” He sobers and looks directly into my eyes. “Pete, I think you could help with the boys I’ve invited to the camp. With all of them. Both the hearing impaired boys, the ones who can’t talk, and the ones from the youth program. I think you can do brilliant things. I believe in you, Pete, and I want to give you an opportunity to prove you’re better than this.” He makes a sweeping gesture that encompasses the room.
Better than jail? Am I better than what I have become? I am not so sure.
“Do we have a deal?” he asks.
I nod and stick out my hand again for him to shake. “We have a deal.”
“Do you need for someone to pick you up in the morning?” he asks.
I shake my head. “I can get here.”
“I’ll see you at six am.” He claps a hand on my shoulder and points toward the door. “I believe your family is waiting outside.”
My heart trips a beat. It’s been so long. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like to be with them again. To feel normal.
I nod and bite my lower lip. But I steel my spine and walk out the door. The guards lead me by the guard station and toward the door, where they give me a bag with my belongings and ask me to check it. I slide my wallet into the back pocket of my jeans. I put my watch back on my wrist. I drop my piercings into my pocket. I might be able to get at least some of them back in later.
“Ready?” Mr. Caster asks. I didn’t realize he was right beside me until I look into his eyes. Very softly he says, “Stop worrying so much. They’re the same family you left two years ago.”
They might be, but I’m the one who’s different. I nod my head, though. I can’t speak past the lump in my throat.
I shove through the door, pressing hard on the lock bar, pushing and then I find myself outside the walls of the prison for the first time in two years. I take a deep breath and look up at the sky. Then I see my brothers waiting at the end of the walk and the lump in my throat grows twice the size. I blink hard, trying to squeeze back the emotion. Paul, my oldest brother, is standing beside Matt, who has the biggest grin on his face. His hair has grown back, and it’s gotten longer than I’ve ever seen it on him. He told me in a letter that he had decided to let it grow out now that he knows what it’s like to lose it all to cancer. He’s recovering. I missed it all because I was behind bars. But that’s one of the reasons why I was there. I thought I could help him and just ended up getting myself in trouble. Logan is standing with his arm draped over his girlfriend Emily’s shoulder. She looks up at him like he hung the stars and the moon. He points and smiles toward me, and she looks up and yells. Then she wiggles out of Logan’s arms and runs toward me full force. She hits me hard in the chest, her arms wrapping around my neck. I lift her off the ground and spin her around as she squeezes me. She murmurs in my ear. “I’m so glad you’re coming home,” she says. “We missed you so much.”
I look around. Someone is missing. “Where’s Sam?” I ask. Her face falls and she looks everywhere but at me. Sam’s my twin. But he’s not here. My gut clenches. I really hoped he would be.
“He’s stuck at school. You know how tight school schedules can be.” She won’t look me in the face, so I know she’s lying. I put my arm around her for a second and walk toward my brothers, but it’s only a few steps before Paul jerks me away from Emily and wraps me up in a big bear hug. He squeezes me so tightly that my breath jerks out of me.
“Let me go, you big ox,” I grunt out, but when he does, he grabs my head in his hands and runs his fingers through my prison cut. My hair’s so short it’s not much more than fuzz on the top of my head.
Logan punches me in the arm and I turn to look at him. Logan’s deaf and he uses sign language. But, after eight years of silence, he started to talk right before I went to prison. He signs while he speaks. “Somebody scalp you while you were sleeping?” he asks, pointing to his hair. It’s so strange hearing words come out of Logan’s mouth. He went so long without speaking. But Emily brings out the best in him, including his voice. “It looks like you went three rounds with a weed eater. And lost.”
Before I can answer, he’s pulling me in for a hug. Logan’s special. He’s wicked smart and he’s ultra talented. Emily’s his and everyone knows it. They’re meant to be together forever and no one doubted it from the first night he brought her home with her ass tossed over his shoulder and her Betty Boop panties shining.
Logan lets me go and I look at Matt. He looks so healthy he’s glowing. “Speaking of haircuts,” I say, pulling on a lock of his hair, “when do you think you might get one?”
He cuffs me gently on the side of my head and pulls me into his shoulder. God, I have missed them.
“We’re going to start calling you Goldilocks,” I warn. We’re all blonde, and some of us are more blonde than others.
“Try it, asswipe,” he warns as he punches my shoulder. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a good match.”
Emily wraps her arm around my forearm and squeezes. “I think you’re bigger than when you went in,” she says.
“Not much else to do but work out and read.” I shrug.
“I can still take you,” Logan says. He flexes his muscles. It’s so good to hear him speak.
Logan was injured in a car accident right after I went to jail and he almost died. I wanted to go to him so badly. But they wouldn’t let me out. “I heard you’re an old man with a limp now.” I duck when he tries to grab my head for a noogie and I dance away from him.
“Nothing about me is limp,” he says with a chuckle. “Right Emily?” he says, grinning. She punches him in the arm. He bends at the waist and tosses her over his shoulder. She squeals and beats on his butt, but he pays her no mind. He never does when they do this. He starts toward the subway so we can go home. The rest of us follow.
Emily gives up, and dangles there over Logan’s shoulder. She’s right by my face, so I lean in and kiss her on the cheek. “You all right?” she asks quietly. It’s fucking ridiculous the way she’s just bobbing there.
“It’s good to be going home,” I admit. “Strange, but good.”
She wraps her hands around her mouth and whispers dramatically. “We have beer at the apartment! For your birthday!”
I grin. I spent my twenty-first birthday behind bars. But I had a feeling they wouldn’t let it pass by without some kind of celebration. “Just beer?” I whisper back playfully.
She winks. “There might be some other stuff, too. Like wine.”
My brothers don’t do anything more than drink occasionally. “Is there cake?” I ask.
She nods. “Sam made it.” Sam’s the baker in the family. It’s too bad he had to play football to earn his way into college, because he’d make a damn fine baker. And he’d be happier doing it.
“So he was home this weekend?” Hearing that he was home this weekend but he’s not there now is like a knife to my gut. It fucking hurts. I can’t say I blame him, though.
She nods, and she does that thing she does where she doesn’t look me in the face. She’d be terrible at poker because she can’t lie worth shit.
“How long do you think he’ll avoid me?” I ask.
Matt looks over at me, his face searching mine, but he doesn’t answer my question either.
I sit in my dad’s truck and drum my thumb on the steering wheel along with the music. I dropped Dad off an hour ago, and he sent me on an errand because he hates the idea of me sitting outside of a prison by myself. I finished his errand and now I’m waiting. He can’t fault me for that, can he?
I freeze when I see three tatted up men walk by where I’m parked. They’re blond and huge. But one of them is holding hands with a girl, a pretty lady with dirty blonde hair. I sit up taller and watch them. They’re friendly with one another and you can almost see how happy they are to be together. The one holding hands with the girl slaps her on the bottom and runs from her and she streaks off after him until she can jump on his back. She leans forward and kisses him on the cheek. He puts her down because she’s signing something to him. My heartbeat stutters. This is the family. I’m almost certain of it. They’re Peter Reed’s brothers.
Peter Reed is someone I have wanted to meet for two and a half years. He saved me one night when I really needed saving. He found me huddled in a room in the back of a frat house after the unthinkable happened.
I’m huddled by the wall, still shaking from what happened. He turned out the light when he left, so I sit in the dark, with my teeth chattering so hard that my jaw hurts. My panties are still wrapped around my ankle, dangling there like the useless piece of cloth they are. One side is broken from where he ripped them off me, but I can’t make my arms unwrap from around myself long enough to pull them up. Or off. My skirt is hiked up around my waist. He didn’t bother to even pull it down when he was done. He just whispered in my ear about how no one would ever believe me if I told, and how I had better keep it to myself if I knew what was good for me.
My phone dings beside me, its bright face a beacon in the darkness and I look down at it. I want to pick it up. It’s probably one of my friends wondering where I’ve gotten off to. But I can’t unwrap my arms long enough to reach for it either. If I unwrap, I’ll fall apart. I can’t fall apart. I just can’t.
The door opens and a sliver of light tumbles into the room. A young man laughs at someone as he closes the door in a girl’s face. He flips the light on and leans back against the door cursing playfully. I crawl on my hands toward the shadow in the corner. Maybe he won’t see me. But he does. I can tell when he freezes and curses for real.
My teeth are still chattering and I can’t draw in a complete breath. He drops down to squat in front of me. “Hey, are you all right?” he asks. He reaches a hand toward me. An animalistic sound leaves my throat. It’s one that scares even me, and he jerks his hand back like I’m a rabid dog and he’s afraid I’ll bite. The guy who just left, he wasn’t afraid of me at all. After a few minutes of really nice kissing, I was ready to stop but he pushed me down, tore off my panties, held me still and raped me.
I look into this man’s sky blue eyes and they’re so different from the brown ones that hurt me. I open my mouth to speak, but only a squeak comes out. My phone dings again and I look toward it.
“Do you want me to get it for you?” he asks softly. He reaches for it and then puts it within my reach. I take it, jerking it from his hand as I crouch further into the corner. He pulls back like I scare him. I look down at the screen.
Rachel: Where are you, hussy? I saw you locking lips with the douchebag. Did you leave with him?
I need to reply. But my fingers are shaking too much.
“Do you want me to do it?” the man asks. He gently takes the phone from my grasp with a twisty tug and I let it go. It’s of no use to me. I’m shaking too badly to use it.
“What do you want me to say?” he asks.
I swallow hard. I screamed when it started, before he covered my mouth with his hand, right before he banged my head onto the bathroom countertop, and now my throat hurts. “Help me.” The words are a whisper and he leans closer, because he can’t hear what I’m saying.
“What?” he asks softly.
“Help me,” I say. He looks at my face. He doesn’t look down at my exposed body. He just looks at my face, like I’m not sitting here with my skirt hiked up above my hips, like my shirts not torn open. Like I wasn’t just raped. Defiled. Used. I tug at my skirt and he looks around the room, opens a cabinet and lays an unfolded towel over me. I start to adjust my clothes beneath it. He looks down and picks up my shoes, which I must have kicked off when I was flailing. He sets them next to my feet. He sees my panties hanging over my ankle and he reaches for them, lifting my leg gently so he can pull them off my foot. “I need those,” I say. I really, really need them.
He shakes them out and holds them up, like if I was putting them on. “They’re torn,” he says.
“I need them,” I say again. A tear rolls down my cheek and his face softens. He finds the scraps of fabric where the man who hurt me ripped them at the hip and he ties a knot in them. He holds them up, like I’m two and need his help getting dressed. I put my feet in them and stand up, unsteady on my legs. He reaches out to support me. My hands are shaking so badly that I can’t pull them up. He helps me. He hisses in a breath when he pulls them past the blood on my inner thighs. He lifts his gaze, looking into my face as he pulls them over my hips and then he tugs my skirt down to cover them. I lower the towel and he closes my shirt with gentle fingers. He bends over and picks up my phone where I dropped it.
“Can I call someone for you?” he asks.
I nod. But I can’t think of who. I can’t call my parents. I wasn’t supposed to be at this party. I was supposed to be in my dorm room studying.
“Call Rachel,” I say. I lean against the counter, feeling like I can’t hold myself up anymore.
He scrolls through my contacts until he finds her name. He calls and I can hear the faint ring through the phone. “Hello, Rachel?” he asks.
“Who are you and why do you have that hussy’s phone?” I hear Rachel ask.
He looks at me. “Do you want to talk to her?” he asks me over the phone.
I shake my head.
He closes his eyes and says, “My name is Peter Reed and I’m here with your friend…” He stops and looks at me, his eyebrows scrunching together. “What’s your name?”
“Reagan,” I whisper.
“I’m sorry,” he says. And he really looks like he is. “I can’t hear you.” His tone is soft and much more sympathetic than I deserve.
“Reagan,” I bark. I groan inwardly at the way I said that. It was a spurt. But he heard me. That’s what matters.
“I’m here with your friend, Reagan. She needs you.”
“Where?” I hear Rachel say.
“J-just tell her the party. M-master bathroom, I think.” I look around.
“Do you want me to just go find her?” he asks, looking at me over the phone.
My gut clenches. “Don’t leave me,” I whisper. My jaw quivers and I hate it. But this man makes me feel safe.
He reaches out and very gently lays his hand on the side of my head. I jerk back, and he immediately realizes that touching me was a mistake. “I won’t leave. I promise,” he says. He turns back to the phone. “We’re in the back bedroom, in the bathroom. She’s hurt.” He looks at my face while he says it. Not at my abused body. His eyes stare into mine. “She’s strong,” he says. “But I think she needs you.” He looks down at the phone. “I think she hung up on me.”
I nod. “Thank you,” I say.
“I’m going to stay with you,” he says to assure me. “I’m not leaving. I promise.”
I nod and lean against the counter, crossing my arms beneath my breasts.
“I’m going with you so I can be sure you go to the hospital,” he says.
I shake my head. “That’s not necessary.”
He looks into my eyes. “A rape kit is necessary.”
Oh, I’m going to the hospital. I need to be tested for STD’s. And get a morning after pill. And do all the things I never thought I’d have to think about, much less do. “I know. I’ll go.”
“I’ll go with you.”
I shake my head. He’s already seen enough of my shame.
“I can’t walk away and leave you like this.”
There’s a quick knock on the door and he calls out, “Who’s there?”
“It’s Rachel,” says a muffled voice. My soul cries out for her. I nod and he opens the door. She rushes in and stops short. Her face contorts, but she bites it back quickly when she sees a tear roll down my face. “What happened?” she croons. She wraps her arms around me and pulls me in tight. I sob into her shoulder as she holds me. I look up at him through the curtain of her hair and see that he’s blinking furiously. He sniffles and straightens his spine when he sees me looking at him.
“She needs to go to the hospital,” he says quietly.
“I’ll take her.” She looks around. “How can we get her out of here without everyone seeing her?” she asks.
He pulls his hoodie over his head and walks over to me. He bunches it up like he wants to put it over my head, but he asks for permission to do it with his eyes. I nod and he drops it over me, and his scent wraps around me. It’s like citrus and woodsy outdoor smells combined. It wraps me up and holds me close, still warm from his body. I tug it down around my hips. Rachel wets a corner of the towel he gave me earlier and wipes beneath my eyes. “You have scratches on your face,” she says. Then she sees my neck. “Did he choke you?” she gasps. But she quickly recovers. I cover my neck with my hand. That’s not the worst he did.
A growl starts low in Pete’s belly, but I can hear it. He’s angry for me. “Thank you,” I whisper to him as she leads me to the door, her hand holding tightly to mine.
“Can I come with you?” he asks.
Rachel looks at me for confirmation but I shake my head.
“Can I at least check on you later?” he asks. “How can I find you again?”
“We need to go,” Rachel says.
He follows us down the hallway and through the noisy kitchen and the even noisier living room. He shields my body with the width of his and opens the door for us so we can walk in front of him. Rachel’s hand is in mine, but I feel the need to reach for his, because he represents strength for me. “Thank you, Peter Reed,” I whisper.
“You’re welcome,” he whispers back. He opens the car door for me and I gingerly sit down. I’m sore, so I hiss. He stiffens. “Are you sure I can’t go?”
I nod. I lay my head back and close my eyes. And let Rachel drive me to the hospital.
A shriek jerks me from my memories. I watch as a blond man walks out of the front of the jail and the girl who was with the three men launches herself at Peter Reed. I know it’s him. I haven’t seen him since that night, but I am completely sure that my savior just walked out of the prison.
A knock sounds on the passenger window and I jump. I look over at my dad, who makes a face at me through the window. I unlock the door and he gets in. He looks at the scene in front of us. “Are you happy now?” he asks.
My dad’s an attorney, and he took over Pete’s legal needs when I found out where he was. I went looking for him a few weeks after the attack. I asked around campus, until I finally found someone who knew one of his brothers. Pete was in jail for a foolish mistake. So, I asked my dad to help him. He’s been working to have him freed ever since.
My dad’s well known in this town for his work with the youth detention program, and he does a lot of pro bono work for people who can’t afford representation. Dad found out that Pete had legal counsel that someone else set up for him, so he asked to assist in the case. Pete still had to go to jail, but he got a much lighter sentence because of Dad’s help. Pete doesn’t deserve to be in jail. He deserves to be given a medal of honor.
I look at Dad and smile. “Yes, I’m happy now. Did you get to ask him about coming to the farm?” I ask it very shyly, because my dad reads me like I’m a book.
“And?” My insides are flipping around and my heart is racing.
I lay a hand on my chest and force myself to take a deep breath.
“What do you hope to get out of seeing this boy?” Dad asks.
“I just want to thank him, Dad.”
Dad grins and rolls his eyes. “I was thinking you might want to have his babies.”
I snort. “Not yet.”
I’ll see Pete tomorrow. I can’t wait.
“Hey, kid,” he says softly. “He’s been in jail two years. He may be a little harder than that boy you met that night so long ago.”
Dad talks about it like it happened years ago. But it happens again and again in my head, every single night.
“He still saved me, Dad,” I say quietly.