Stone Cold Heart
Grace hurried to keep up, stumbling in her borrowed sandals. At least she managed not to fall on her face. Half a block ahead, her cousin’s veil fluttered behind her as she led the charge to the next bar.
Grace had liked the steampunk place, especially because they didn’t have a bouncer. But Bella had gotten bored and wanted to go somewhere with a band. It was Sixth Street, after all—the nightlife capital of Austin, the live-music capital of the world, supposedly.
Grace’s thighs chafed together as she race-walked to catch up with Bella’s friends, all blond and all sorority sisters, including a Sienna, a Sierra, and two Rileys. Grace had sat beside Sierra at dinner and learned that she was an intern at a B-to-B marketing firm in Dallas—whatever that meant. Grace hadn’t gotten much from the conversation. The woman had basically stopped talking once she figured out that Grace was not only underage but also a student at a podunk community college.
They reached the bar, a warehouse-style building with a rooftop deck. A guitar chord ripped through the air above them as the band warmed up. Their entourage pressed close to Bella as she neared the door. She flirted with the bouncer, drawing his attention to
the BRIDE sash draped over her breasts. He smiled and waved them in.
A man bumped into Grace, jostling her sideways.
“Hey, sorry,” he slurred.
Grace stepped around him just as the Rileys disappeared through the door. Grace rushed to follow, but the bouncer grabbed her arm.
She unzipped her wristlet and took it out. The bouncer plucked it from her hand, and Grace held her breath as he studied it. It wasn’t bad. Actually, it was good. It had a real Texas seal and a bar code on the back. The bouncer looked from the photo to Grace and shook his head.
“Sorry.” He handed it back.
“What do you mean?”
“Can’t let you in with that.”
“Step back.” He reached over her for another girl’s license. She looked sixteen, but she was thin and pretty. He barely glanced at her before waving her through.
Burning with humiliation, Grace stepped away from the door. She looked up at the rooftop deck and took out her phone.
Crap, what to write? She decided to go for lighthearted.
My ID didn’t work! Followed by three crying-face emojis.
Grace tucked the ID away and stood in the sweltering heat, waiting for Bella’s response. Would she come down and sweet-talk the bouncer? Round everyone up to go to another bar? Yeah, right. Grace wasn’t betting on it.
A text bubble popped up as Bella started to respond. Then it disappeared.
Grace bit her lip. Sweat pooled in the cups of the tight strapless bra she’d worn with her off-the-shoulder blouse. She waited a minute. Two. Three. A bitter lump lodged in her throat. She should have known this would happen.
Grace took a deep breath and texted again: no worries see you back at the hotel later!
She waited another minute, but still no response. Clutching the strap of her wristlet, she set off down the street. She held her head high, as though there was nowhere she’d rather be right now than walking down Sixth Street all by herself. Grace blinked back tears. The hotel was eight blocks away, maybe nine, and the straps of her shoes cut into her skin.
She never should have come. She didn’t know these people, and she couldn’t afford it. She’d come for Bella, but her cousin had been too wrapped up in the wedding plans to even talk to her. Now Grace had wasted not only a weekend she could have worked but thirty dollars’ worth of gas, plus her share of the hotel room.
She stopped on the corner and looked around. Where the hell was the hotel? It had to be close. She took out her phone to check the map.
An SUV pulled over, its window rolling down.
“Hey, you call for a ride?” the driver asked. He wore a baseball cap and a blue button-down shirt that matched his eyes.
Grace noted the sticker on his windshield. “No, not me.”
He smiled. “Would you like one?”
“I don’t have the app, sorry.”
He looked her over. “Tell you what, I’ll make an exception. You can pay cash. Where you going?”
Grace hesitated. She should walk. It couldn’t be more than a few blocks away. But thinking of her raw feet, she reached for the door.
The back seat was clean and spacious. It smelled like piña coladas and faintly of vomit. She noticed the pineapple-shaped air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror.
Grace checked her messages as he pulled away from the curb.
“You here for the festival?”
She glanced up. “What?”
“The music festival?”
“No. A bachelorette party.”
“Where you from?”
“Houston,” she lied.
A text came in from Bella. Two frowny emojis and then, ok c u soon!!
Of course, she’d waited until now to respond, when there was no chance of Grace ruining their plans.
Grace should have listened to her mom. She’d always said Bella was selfish. Well, she’d never said those exact words. But she knew what her mom thought of her own sister, and she’d said, The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree with that one.
They turned into an alley, and Grace glanced around, startled. “Um, the hotel’s on Brazos Street?”
His eyes met hers in the rearview mirror, and Grace’s skin went cold.
She pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “Actually, just drop me off here, thanks.”
He turned into an even darker alley beside a parking garage. Grace’s throat went dry as he rolled to a stop.
She lunged for the door, but it wouldn’t open. Her heart hiccuped as he turned in his seat and reached back.
Pain blazed through her, and she reeled sideways. She couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. She tried to lift her head.
Another jolt fired through her body, this one bigger and brighter, like grabbing a live wire. White-hot pain seared her. She couldn’t move or hear, but she tasted blood and smelled her clothes burning.
And then there was nothing.
Nothing, nothing, nothing, only black.