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Authors: Paula Stokes


BOOK: Vicarious
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About the Author

Copyright Page


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To Marcy,
for reminding me I could write any book I wanted to,
and for never giving up on Winter's story



I can't
seem to wipe away the blood. I rub my hands against my nightgown, but traces of the red remain, staining the lines of my palms and the crescents beneath my fingernails. I wipe harder, gathering and bunching the soft cotton inside my fists. The fabric has been slit up the center and I worry that I've been cut, that maybe the blood is my own. I try to ask what's happening, but there's a mask over my mouth and nose. Suddenly it hits me—I'm in an ambulance.

I don't remember how I got here.

The day returns in disordered fragments. A taxi ride that was short and frantic. A series of plane rides that stretched into forever. Before that, what? The apartment in Los Angeles? No, something else. Something with blood? I struggle to reassemble the memory, but the pieces won't fit.

My heart pounds like the hoofbeats of a frightened animal. I inhale sharply but can't get any air, like maybe the mask on my face is stealing oxygen instead of providing it. The ceiling above my head blurs. Everything starts to go gray.

But then my older sister, Rose, leans over the gurney. “I'm here, Winter,” she says. “You're going to be all right.” She reaches down to pet my straight black hair.

The ambulance comes back into focus. The next few moments are a whir of strong hands and sharp needle sticks. There is murmuring and beeping. The paramedics converse in meaningless letters and numbers. No one tells me what's happening.

Rose chides the men for scaring me. Despite the cramped quarters, they navigate around her with ease, never once telling her to move out of their way.

*   *   *

hospital is a haze of white walls and overhead lights. The bed beneath me changes from hard to soft as the paramedics unload me from the stretcher. Rose's boyfriend, Ki Hyun, appears from somewhere. Not Ki Hyun. Gideon. He changed his name. We all did.

Rose is still by my side. She keeps telling me everything is going to be fine. “We're safe now,” she says. “We're never going back there.”

A pair of nurses peer down at me. A gloved hand runs across my bare thigh, lingering on a constellation of circular scars. The nurses swivel their heads simultaneously, their accusing stares falling like guillotine blades onto Gideon. I am sure that smoke lingers on his clothing, as always.

I try to tell them the scars aren't from him, that he'd never hurt me, that he was the one who saved me. He and Rose. But the words that dribble from my mouth are nonsense. The nurses act like they don't even hear them. Swallowing hard, I try again, but my lips form a single word I'm not expecting.
Korean for elder sister.

“I'm right here,” Rose murmurs. She unfolds my fingers and presses her hand to mine, lining up the cross-shaped scars on our palms. “Fingers to fingers and thumb to thumb. A pair of sisters like matching gloves.”

The nurses part to allow a white-coated doctor into the mix. More meaningless letters and numbers are exchanged. All I can make out is his name, Dr. Bernard, and the word
. I might not understand the alphabet speak, but I've studied English since I was a child. I know what a psychiatrist is. It means I'm crazy.

My arm tingles as a nurse injects me with something. My eyelids grow heavier. I struggle to listen to the soft words being exchanged by the doctor and Gideon.

“PTSD … inpatient care … possibly unstable…”

“I can take care … my responsibility.”

“With all due respect … condition might deteriorate … outcome dependent upon…”

“I want to take her home.”

“A couple of nights … observation.”

“Don't. Want. Stay. Here,” I say. Each word is a tiny battle.

“I won't let them keep you,” Rose says. “Hospitals are for the dying, and we are only just beginning to live.”

Thank you.
I think the words, but when I try to speak, what comes out is, “Blood. Blood on my hands.”

“Shh.” She squeezes my fingers. “It was just a dream. There's no blood. You're safe.” But then she lets go and I am adrift in a sea of white.

I struggle to lift myself, to balance my body on my elbows, but my head lolls back on my neck and my muscles all give in at once. I collapse back onto the bed, but not before I see Rose and Gideon standing silently against the wall of the room. Curling onto my side, I watch them talk to each other using only their eyes. Then Gideon turns toward the door and Rose follows. The hallway swallows them up.

I say again. Some part of my brain knows that Rose has only stepped away to speak to Gideon in private or perhaps to grab a cup of coffee, but I need her. A single tear makes its way over the crest of my cheek, following the contours of my face until it falls to the coarse hospital sheets below me.

“What is it, Winter?” a nurse asks. She bends low, frowning in concentration as she takes in my breathing, my temperature, that single rogue tear.

“I need my sister,” I whisper.

The nurse pats my hand. “She isn't here right now, but don't worry. We're going to take care of you.”

We're going to take care of you.
That's what the women at the orphanage said when my mother left us there. That's what the people who brought us to America said before they handed us over to Kyung. That's what Kyung's men said before they started selling us by the hour.

I don't need these doctors and nurses with their weird alphabet speak and their judging eyes. Gideon will take care of Rose and Rose will take care of me. That was the plan from the beginning.




is crowding me out as usual, the reflection of her slender elbow obscuring part of my face in the mirror. Her scattered powders and potions cover the marble vanity of the bathroom we share. They're made of all things bold and glittery, just like she is. In contrast, my neat little cluster of toothbrush, hairbrush, and eyeliner feels like an unruly child put in the corner.

“Move over,” I say.

She's busy curling her eyelashes. I watch as she clamps a little torture device over one eye. People say we look alike, but what they mean is that we look alike except she's more striking. She has the same basic bone structure and pale skin, but bigger eyes, fuller lips, longer hair, and now, apparently, curlier eyelashes.

“You move over. I have plans tonight.” Rose tosses the eyelash curler into the sink and blinks sweetly at my reflection before rummaging through the mess on the vanity to find a tube of mascara.

“Me too.” I finger-comb my shoulder-length black hair, and then grab my eyeliner. A soft brush of black pencil across my lower lash line is usually all the makeup I wear.

“With Jesse Ramirez?” Rose wrinkles her nose at my pencil. “I could help you with your makeup.”

“Maybe.” I ignore her offer to slather me up with products. Jesse's not my boyfriend, and even if he were, I wouldn't waste time trying to impress him by masquerading as someone else.

“Winter,” Rose starts, her voice getting that whole mothering tone like she's forty instead of twenty. “You know Jesse loves you.”

“No he doesn't. We just work together, all right?” I've caught Jesse staring more than once, but I'm fairly certain his feelings are more practical in nature. He wants what all guys want. Too bad for him.

Rose blots her eyelashes on the back of her hand and applies a coat of shiny red lipstick. She looks like something out of a black-and-white movie. I've never seen a dress with so much fringe before.

“You should just give him some. See what it's like to be with someone who actually cares about you.”

I flinch slightly as I tug at her scooped neckline, pulling up the fabric to cover her cleavage. “Maybe you should try
giving some to everyone you meet.”

“Funny.” Rolling her impeccably made-up eyes, Rose twists her curtain of black hair up under a white-blond wig. “I'm going to Inferno. Come by later if you want.”

Inferno is the club in the building next door. I've been there only a couple of times since I turned eighteen three months ago. “Are you … working?” I ask.

She smiles coyly. “Maybe.”

“Then I'll just see you tomorrow.”

Lately, Rose's idea of work has gotten increasingly provocative: modeling, club dancing, switch parties. Inferno holds a switch party every Saturday night. It's basically a make-out version of speed dating, where they turn out all the lights and everyone pairs up, hooks up, and then switches partners. As you can imagine, finding enough men isn't a problem, but the club usually ends up having to pay the women. Rose swears she doesn't let things go too far with anyone, that it's all about teasing and control, but sometimes I wonder. It's her body and she can do what she wants with it, but the thought of some dirty stranger's hands on my sister makes my insides wither.

I love Rose, but sometimes I don't understand her.

“When's your next therapist appointment?” she asks suddenly, as if the look on my face might indicate an impending breakdown.

“Why are you asking me that? You know I quit seeing her.”

Rose arches a dark eyebrow. “I'm surprised you're getting away with that.”

She means Gideon. He and Rose ended their relationship shortly after we left Los Angeles. Despite the breakup, they've remained friends and the three of us still live together in Gideon's penthouse. Which means now he's sort of our landlord, older brother, and boss rolled into one. It's complicated.

BOOK: Vicarious
5.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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