Chapter One

"Wait for the moment when judgment is faulted, your mindset insulted each time that you breathe..."

Day Thirty-Seven was not much different from the day before. Unless you count the blizzard that whirled through Toronto, leaving the city buried under four feet of powder. Or, in my case, four feet of frozen irony...

I peered out of my bedroom window and shook my head at nature's sick sense of humor. It had covered my world in white crystal- soft, pure, finely milled- a shell of cold, pliant cotton.

The perfect lie.

Because, inside, I was anything but white. The bright, enthusiastic girl I'd once been was congealed- buried beneath her own bitter onus. It was easier to cower than to face the issue- the horrid, unspeakable truth that had befallen Degrassi Community School...that had befallen me.

Of course, I'd had to face it initially and, when I did, when I finally came to terms with the fact that my Eli was gone, something happened.


I could admit it. His disappearance kick started a venture- a grave, reckless descent into the darker part of my psyche, a side I'd never acknowledged before. Looking back, I likened it to an emancipation- losing Eli had put things into perspective. It unraveled the binding that had kept me fixed in a thoughtless prison, rutted in the same, jilted mindset for fifteen years. It was a mentality propagated by my upbringing- an adolescence that reared a child of light, unfamiliar with the darker parts of the world.

Which made it that much worse when it all came crashing down around me.

I tugged on the cross around my neck and, for the umpteenth time, wondered why I still wore it. I was angry with God, angry that he had taken away something so precious. Eli might not have been family but he was close. Together, we were something special- our connection was almost...omnipotent. It was more than physical attraction, more than intellctual stimulation- Eli seemed to complete me in some way. Whenever he touched me, hell, whenever he spoke, my entire being came alive. My body would thrum with excitement and my mind would whirl- I had an actual, physical response to his presence and it wasn't at all disagreeable. Cocking my head, I finally put a finger on what it was...

Eli made my soul sing.

And now, I was lost without him- drifting through life- no course or direction.

I gripped the window sill in front of me, trying to contain the invective of feelings bubbling up inside. What had I done to deserve this? I'd been a good girl all my life...I'd stayed between the lines, my color never bleeding over, never staining the rest with its vivid hue. I'd been the perfect Christian- strong willed, heart centered, and content with my beliefs- but all that had been thrown assunder the moment a certain boy rode into town on his big, black hearse.

Looking up, I rolled my eyes. Good Lord Clare, even your jokes are pathetic!

I scoffed and palmed my face. That's exactly what I was. Before I had been naive but, I was pathetic. It fit, it was the perfect adjunct, and I accepted it without hesitation.

Running a hand through my coal colored hair, I lost myself to the simple truth. I wasn't strong, my heart was black, and contempt was now the order of the day. Eli's departure had turned me. I felt positively run through and I wasn't sure that I could go on much longer. I had to know what had become of him- did he run, was he lost, was he...dead? The possibilties were making me crazy! So many things could have happened and I didn't have the first clue what they might be.

Goddamn it, I need an answer!

Anger came quickly these days. I could feel it licking my lower belly, spiraling upwards in a fiery torrent. As the fury surfaced, I let it take me, a loud scream ripping from the back of my throat. Clenching the curtains that framed my window, I turned and tore them off of their tiny dowel. The sound of ripping fabric and the splintering rod was somehow soothing. A manic grin split my features as I threw the drapes across the room. They spun outward and fluttered to the floor like dead, autumn leaves.

I glared at the Indigo fabric in irritation- it wasn't enough for me- the unsatisfying finale only enraged me more.

Turning right, I spied my orderly desktop and all but snarled. It was sickeningly organized: computer, files, disks, little figurines...and, last but not least, a picture of Adam and Eli. I swallowed hard. The photo had been taken just after Eli and I had ironed out the issues in our relationship. He and Adam were under our favorite tree, sprawled unceremoniously in the grass. I studied him for a moment. He was sporting a black eye and a swollen lip from his fight with Fitz but, even bruised the boy still managed to look beautiful. There was something about his eyes. They were brilliant and knowing and they sparkled with mischief as he gazed at the he gazed at me.

Closing my eyes, I let out a heavy breath and, with a firm sweep of my arm, sent everything on the desktop to the floor. Luckily, I didn't kill my laptop- it hung off the side of the desk by its cord but, even still, I contemplated throwing the damn thing just for kicks. My breathing was labored, as it always was after one of these little episodes, and my eyes fluttered as the adrenaline flooded my system. From the crown of my head to the tips of my toes, the heady rush made it all go away- the pain, the struggle, everything...

Destruction had become my release.

I snorted- the idea was oddly bizarre. Clare Edwards, the ruffian.

The door to my room flew open and I flinched in response. My mother and father stood on the other side of the jamb, looking every bit the part of worried parents.

I groaned inwardly.

"Clare, what on earth are you doing?" My mother was obviously irritated but her voice just sounded weary.

I blinked, trying to come up with a good explanation for why my room looked like it'd been hit by a hurricane.

My father furrowed his brow. "Sweetie, are you..." he paused, as if trying to decide on the right words, "feeling alright?"

I narrowed my eyes. "Why? You want to shove another bottle of anti-depressants down my throat?" I snapped, fingering the pockets of my dark, skinny jeans.

He took a step back and shook his head. "Not at all, honey-"

"Spare me all the 'sweetie' and 'honey' crap, dad," I growled. "I'm not in the mood."

"Clearly," my mother drawled, crossing her arms over her chest. She wore a pretty, wrap dress in light blue but it did nothing for her. In fact, it made her look gaunt and a bit drawn- a lot like me.

I leveled my gaze with hers and we stared at each other in provocation.

"Clare, I know this whole Eli situation has been difficult for you," she began, her tone laced with bitterness, "but please keep in mind that there are rules in this house we expect you to follow. If you cannot abide by them, then perhaps we should take away the more expensive things in your possession."

"Go ahead!" I exploded, kicking at the pile of curtains on the floor. "Take it all! I don't care about any of this stuff! It's not like it's made a difference in my life."

As the words slipped out, I realized how true they really were. My mother could threaten me all she wanted! Everything that mattered had already been taken away- nothing in this room would make any difference at all. It was material- it was just stuff. None of it had anything to do with who I was, it didn't make Clare Edwards. In fact, it'd probably hindered more than helped because it was a distraction, a diversion from what was really important.

I opened and closed my mouth, blown away by this epiphany. All this time, I'd been living a lie and now I was forced to own up to my my my judgments. This life...this joke I'd been forced to endure had created an image, not a person. That's all I was- an image, a figment, a clay pigeon- my life was the reflection of my mentality. I relied on everyone and everything else to tell me who I was. I had never looked within. Didn't that somehow make me a conformist? I really had no clue who the hell I was or what the hell I wanted. I was adrift, I was idle, I was wasted...

And I was through with it.

Storming the corridor, my parents jumped sideways as I approached. It seemed they were intimidated by my wrathful expression, not that I blamed them. Flying down the stairs, I threw open the front door and skipped off the stoop. Wading into an alabaster sea, I was halfway down the road before I noticed I'd forgotten a jacket. The air was frigid and my breath was personified- a dancing gale of icy mist with each heavy puff I took. I hugged my chest as the bitter wind ripped through me. My thin, black sweater did nothing to stop winter's callous hand from giving me a nice, hard smack and I shivered, wishing I'd thought twice before barreling out of the house.

"Well, well, if it isn't Clare Edwards!"

I knew that voice but I was in no mood to deal with it. So I kept walking, intent on making it to The Dot before I died of hypothermia.

"You know, you look pretty cold. Maybe you'd like to get in and warm up?"

I paused and glanced to my right. Fitz was creeping beside me in his old Bronco, looking a bit flushed from the heat pumping through its wide, open vents. The thought of climbing inside was more than a little tempting- nice, warm air, soft, fabric seats...but this was Fitz! The same guy who'd beaten my boyfriend to a bloody pulp not two months before...

I clenched my fists and pushed the thought of Eli away.

"Come on, Clare!" he pressed. "I won't bite."

Raising a brow, I took in his suggestive expression. "But you'd like to, I assume?"

"No comment," he rejoined, trying to throw me off his scent. He was doing a horrible job- a wide smile spread over his face and his eyes were dancing with excitement.

Maybe Adam has a point...Fitz does seem a little into me... I bit my lip and stared at him. Was it possible that this was all a front, that he had hurt Eli to get to me? Cocking my head, I frowned. It didn't seem likely. He'd be a damn fool to go right for the girl after doing something so reckless. The idea was a bit far fetched- not even Fitz was dumb enough to do something that impetuous.

"Wow, I'm flattered, Edwards...really..."

I blinked and shook my head, a light blush creeping up my neck when I realized I'd been staring at him for a full minute. "S-sorry," I stuttered, unsure if it was due to embarrassment or frost bite.

Fitz smirked. "Trust me, it's no problem," he drawled, eyes drinking me in with startling voracity.

It caused an odd stirring in my belly- I couldn't be sure if it was enticement or flatulence- but either way, I found it unnerving. Since when did Fitz cause any sort of reaction in me? That type of thing had always been reserved for Eli and Eli alone.

"Get in the truck Clare."

I stepped back and shook my head.

"Don't be silly, you're frozen solid!" He was pushing now.

"N-no, I-I'm alr- right," I was shivering uncontrollably and my body was beginning to hurt. It felt like a thousand needles were stabbing me all at once.

Fitz pulled to a stop and got out of the truck, loping towards me with a determined expression. I began to back away but he managed to catch me around the wrist. Pulling me forward, I landed against his chest with a great oomph! I wanted to flee, really, I did, but his body was like heaven- warm and soft and oh so welcoming. I could even overlook the heavy callouses on his large palm- his skin was that warm.

"Holy Shit, you're freezing!" he exclaimed.

I opened my mouth to protest but, before I could, Fitz scooped his arm under my knees and picked me up bridal style.

"F-Fitz, p-put m-me do-down..." I sputtered indignantly.

"No way," he shot back. My mouth fell open when I saw his expression was clouded with worry. "I'm putting you in the truck before you die of hyperthermia."

"H-hypo..." I stuttered.

He snorted and tromped over to the massive Bronco, boots crunching through the heavy snow bank. "Always the academic, even in possibe death," he retorted, tossing me onto the seat like a rag doll.

I wrinkled my nose in aggravation- I hated being treated like a helpless damsel. Placing my hands on either side of my body, I made to hop out of the passenger door but one thing kept me from doing so. The heat, the wonderful, glorious, magnificent, utopian...

No, it's evil Clare! The heat is evil! Now get out of the truck...

But I couldn't move. I was so cold I was practically petrified and every time I tried to stir, a shot of sheer agony would course through my body. Fitz slid onto the seat next to me and threw an arm around my shoulders, tucking me closer to him than I would have liked. Normally, I would object but I was so damn cold I couldn't even blink!

"Now, where were you headed?" he asked, looking down at me in question.

"D-d-d..." I sounded like I had a speech impediment.

Fitz wrinkled his brow. "Dot?" he supplied.

I nodded since I had lost control of my tongue.

He leaned down and turned up the heat, a blast of tepid air rolling over my frozen skin. I reveled in the dual warmth of Fitz's body heat and the truck's toasty atmosphere. The ride was quiet and a bit awkward, at least for me. Fitz seemed totally at ease which I found a little strange. After everything that had happened, he seemed so unconcerned, so light. In retrospect, I guess it made sense. He and Eli had never been friends so I couldn't expect him to be in mourning or anything.

We pulled to a stop in front of The Dot and, shifting in his seat, Fitz cleared his throat. I glanced up at him- he looked uncomfortable. It was a rare moment of incongruity and it left me gobsmacked.

"Um..." he blew out a heavy breath and I raised my brows, still thrown by his uneasiness. "I, uh, wanted to say that I'm sorry." He paused, raking his teeth over his lower lip- back and forth, back and forth- it made a small, squeaking sound that drove me nuts.

"For what?" Thank the Lord, my voicebox has defrosted!

He grimaced and closed his eyes. "Eli," he gritted out.

I gaped at him in acrimonious disbelief. No way had he just said that...said his name. For some reason Fitz even thinking about Eli made me see red.

"Why?" I hissed.

He glanced down at me and his mouth fell open. "I..." Clamping his teeth together, he blinked at my hardened expression. We stared at each other for a moment- my face an intense allegation, his a tender overature.

"FITZ!" A loud thumping on the window broke the spell.

Turning away from me, he rolled down the frost covered glass. "What?" he demanded, his tone thick with annoyance.

The guy outside of the truck leaned forward and I caught a glimpse of his face. It was Michael- the same guy I'd seen at The Dot not three days earlier. "Dude, we need to talk," he murmured in a low voice. "There's been a-" His eyes flickered over to where I was sitting and I swear they about popped out of his skull. "C-Clare?"

I opened my mouth to respond but Fitz beat me to the punch.

"Yeah, you know Edwards." His voice was cocky and knowing, the same tone he used in school.

I rolled my eyes in censure. "Fitz and I were just carpooling," I replied. "I'll run along so you two can talk."

"No, wait Clare," Fitz reached out to grab my hand but I pulled away.

"Thanks for the ride," I said in a formal tone.

Jumping out of the Bronco, I sidestepped Michael as he loped over to the passenger side. He kept his eyes on the dirty snow, purposely avoiding contact. I frowned- the boy was a bit anti-social when it came to me. He got into the truck and, as he closed the door, he finally looked up. There was that grave, dour expression that made my breath catch. I stared at him, locked in on his obvious turmoil...I could certainly relate. Michael held my gaze and, as they pulled away, it seemed to get more desperate. I watched them head down the street, the Bronco's tail lights fading in the distance and one thought cycling through my head: What is up with that kid?


I spun around, clutching my chest in shock. Adam was speeding towards me, his face alight with anticipation. He skidded to a halt a few inches from where I stood but his balding Doc Martins caught a patch of ice and he slid into me, arms wrapping around my shoulders as we toppled backwards into the snow.

"Ow!" I groused. "What are you doing, Adam!"

"They..." He hesitated, trying to cath his breath. Pounding the ground beside us, he finally managed to calm down. "They found Eli's jacket!"

My entire body went rigid. I rolled sideways and he slid off of me into the bank beside us. Sitting up, I grabbed Adam by the lapel of his ridiculous vest and pulled him into my face. His eyes were as wide as saucers and he peered at me in terrified astonishment.

"Tell me everything or I'll have your balls before you get the chance to grow a pair," I growled.

"Er...well, two men were fishng in between the upper and lower Don- about five miles south of where The Ravine gulley flows into the river- and they found an old military jacket," Adam explained, his voice constricted with worry. "Inside they discovered Eli's flask and..." he trailed off, looking down at my hands in hesitation.

"And what?" I demanded, giving him a good shake.

He looked up at me, eyes shining with some sort of hidden emotion. "A picture of you."