Chapter 28: Rose blooming on a hilltop
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Anna awoke to the blaring sound of her alarm. She quickly turned it off as she rolled out of bed and began preparing for school. Surprisingly, both of her parents were still home. Her father was drinking a cup of coffee while her mother sat and watched tv. They paid her no heed as she went into the kitchen and  retrieved a bag of lettuce and bottle of honey. She brought the two items back upstairs and set them down on her desk next to a terrarium. The terrarium was furnished with a bed of small rocks and leaves. Crawling around atop one of the rocks was a small Ladybug. She poured a bit of honey into a bottlecap and placed it in the enclosure. Next she tore off a small piece of lettuce and placed it next to the honey. She replaced the terrarium's lid and grabbed her backpack off the floor.

Before closing the door to her room, she took one last look inside. It was somewhat messy, clothes littered the floor and her bed was unmade. Also piled up on the floor were several posters from various rock and metal bands. They had been hanging on her walls a few weeks prior but now they had been replaced. Replaced by hundreds of candid photographs of a young teenage boy with gray hair and glasses. She closed the door and headed downstairs. 

After leaving the house, she began walking to school. After several minutes of walking, Anna arrived at a small convenience store several blocks from school. Her friends, Cass and Sara were both waiting by the entrance. Sara worked part time at the store though she and Cass had been long-time patrons of the store before she had been hired. The two eagerly waved at her as she approached. “Hey, you eaten anything yet?” Sara asked her as she waved around a tin foil wrapped breakfast burrito. “No, I didn't have time. Thanks , I’ll be sure to pay you back.” Anna replied as she took the burrito and unwrapped it. 

The group began walking as Anna ate. “I heard Derrick got caught banging Cindy in the locker room.” Cass giggled. “Cindy from the cheerleading club?” Sara asked? Cass nodded, her smile widening, “and you’ll never guess who caught em.” Sara’s eyes widened in realization. “Her boyfriend?” she asked. “Yea, her fucking boyfriend.” Cass said. The two of them laughed as though the relationship drama between a few teens they barely knew was the funniest thing in the world.

“Disgusting.” Anna muttered as she balled up the foil wrapper in her fist. “Sorry, I thought you liked one with bacon and eggs.” Sara said. Anna shook her head as she replied. “No, cheating on someone. It’s fucking disgusting.” Cass tried to clear the tension as she said. “Yea, I mean, Cindy is a total bitch for cheating on her man but that shit happens like, all the time. Anna’s eyes grew clouded, as she said. “If you hurt the person you love, you should just die. You don’t deserve to say you love someone if your love is that shallow.”

Anna’s friends were starting to grow slightly creeped out by her behavior. Ever since school had started up a few weeks ago, she had been acting slightly off. Little things seemed to just set her off. “Is this about Lady.” Sara asked. The teen girl's arm was suddenly grabbed by her red haired friend. Cass tried to separate the two but Sara pushed her away. “No, I need to know, are you still hung up on Lady?” Sara asked, looking at her friend. Anna returned the stare and replied. “I love him.” 

Time seemed to stand still for a minute before Sara replied, “Listen, I’m telling you this as your friend, but this isn’t healthy. He’s a nice kid and I feel sorry for bullying him but it would be better if we all just buried the hatchet and moved on. You’ve been acting weird lately, and not like a girl in love weird but like a girl possessed. I don’t think what you’re feeling is love.” Anna suddenly let go of her friends arm and pushed her away yelling, “Don’t tell me how I feel! Don’t act like you know me.” She dropped to her knees as she cried, “He’s everything, I need him, don’t try and take him away from me.” 

Sara and Cass stood there dumbfounded. Both of them knew that Anna had changed after finding out Lady was her online friend but neither of them thought it was this bad. The two of them had hoped that things would end after they had mutually agreed to stop being assholes and picking on the boy. Sara stepped forward to comfort her friend but Anna pulled away, falling onto her back. She was panting heavily and opened her mouth to speak right before a car pulled up beside them. The back door opened and Lady popped out

He quickly reached her side and asked if she was ok as he extended a hand. Anna completely ignored his hand and practically leapt into his arms nearly knocking him over. Sara and Cass, who were already at a loss for words, could only watch as the two of them shuffled into the backseat of the car and drove off. ““Fuck”” they both exclaimed as the car left. 

____

Lady had been hitching a ride from his teacher, Emma Sierra just as he had the few previous mornings. He had once again told her that he would be fine walking but she insisted that his rib would heal faster if he didn’t strain himself. The young boy had been sitting in the backseat, staring out the window when he suddenly spotted Anna, laying on the sidewalk. A sudden foreign feeling washed over him and he demanded that Emma pullover. 

A few minutes had passed since then and now, Anna was sitting next to him in the back seat, clutching him. Despite their troubled past and limited interactions, Lady felt the urge to protect the girl. Ironic considering he was several inches shorter and fifty odd pounds lighter but it was a desire he held nonetheless. Maybe it had awakened last night, when he had been blackmailed? His ponderings were cut short as Emma pulled into the teachers parking lot and opened the passenger door. 

Lady tried to press Anna for answers but she refused to talk about what had happened between her friends. Similar to yesterday, Lady found that Lily hadn’t come to school. He texted her wondering if she was alright. “Who are you texting?” Anna asked as they walked to class. “Just a friend.” Lady replied. He smiled realizing that he was finally comfortable calling Lily that. Anna’s eyes narrowed. “I see. I’m sorry for interrupting you,” Lady frantically shoved his phone into his pocket. “No, no, no, It was rude of me to be on my phone while I was with you. I’m just not used to being with friends.” 

The word repeated in her head for several seconds. “Friends,” she muttered. Lady realizing what he had called her said, “I know it might just be because of our tutoring together but, I think we could be friends. if you want.” The young boy was nearly trembling as he looked at Anna. He had just asked the girl who had spent the past two years bullying him if she wanted to be friends. Surprisingly, she said, “Yes. I would like that. Thank you.” Her words were barely audible over the sound of the crowded hallway. At that moment, she seemed almost fragile. Like she could shatter into a million pieces. 

The two of them parted ways and headed towards their first period classes. Lady was well aware that Anna wasn’t a bad person. He had been friends with her online for long enough to recognize her struggles and admire her strength. While the prospect of befriending her in real life was a scary one, Lady hoped that it would make it easier for him to come clean about the truth. The truth that he was her friend online and what's more, the one who had betrayed her. 

The next few days came and went. Lady fell into the routine of being picked up and brought to school. Lily was absent for the rest of the week leaving Lady alone with Maria most mornings. He also began to talk more with Anna, even outside their regular lunchtime tutoring sessions. After school, he would be picked up by Noel who would drive him and Racheal to her bookstore. Noel had finally finished establishing a website and Lady and Racheal would take turns manning the front counter and retrieving books for online orders. Racheal hadn’t brought up the photo or her threat again but Lady made sure to add her number to his phone in case she contacted him. 

After work, Lady would return home and play games or do homework. He texted Lily a few times during the week but her responses were always curt and dismissive. Fearing that she was mad at him, he eventually stopped. Even asking Maria at school led him nowhere. He figured she might just be sick but he couldn’t help but worry. 

___

Friday was the last day that Anna had tutoring with Miss Sierra and Lady. When school ended, she walked home by herself. As she approached her front gate, she noticed there was someone standing there. He looked to be around Anna’s age, sporting a slender frame and dark hair. He had a gentle face that could almost be considered beautiful. The shabby clothes and the sad look on his face hid that beauty and created a sober air about him. 

As she approached him, Anna called out to the boy. “Can I help you?” He turned around and cocked his head as though confused. “Do you live here?” He asked. Anna nodded her head cautiously wondering what the boy wanted. “Then does Peter Hirsh live here?” He asked. Anna’s eyes narrowed as she heard her fathers name come out of the boy's mouth. 

“Yes, what do you want with him?” She asked. He frowned slightly before responding. “He’s my father.” The words took a minute to sink in. It was impossible. He had to be lying, after all, she was an only child. She studied the boy silently. Admittedly, he did resemble her father quite a bit, perhaps even more than she did. Anna had always taken after her mother more, inheriting her face and blonde hair. Hair which she purposefully dyed bright red in an attempt to distinguish herself from her mother.  "Come inside. Let's talk" she said as she punched in the gate code. 

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