Radioactive

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Gareth caught up with Riley when she was three blocks away, in front of a gray wall that was the ground floor of a high-rise apartment. She was wiping the tears from her eyes, not realizing he was in front of her until it was too late to avoid crashing into him. She would have tripped, too, were it not for his hands gripping her upper arms to steady her.

Then it hit her, how so long ago, Gareth had been the one to steady her when her life felt so uncertain. He had always been there for her, the ten-year-old boy who never complained — while all her seven-year-old self did then was complain. Paige has a doll she won't let me play with. Paige has a book she won't let me draw on. Paige this. Paige that.

She could rationalize now that she'd only been seven then, her mother's little princess, the girl who loved the free rides on her mother's motorized wheelchair imagining it was her royal steed, while Gareth had been no one's prince but her own. He'd slip into the apartment after every one of his father's drunken binges, always sporting a new bruise, a different cut, a busted lip. Once, Gareth came to her with a broken arm.

If Gareth never complained, it was only because he had no room for complaints. He could only make room for the positive things, like hope. One day we'll make it out of here, Ri, you and me, he told her one day as they sat inside the makeshift fort they'd made of the lower bunk. I'll be your knight in shining armor. Would you like that?

Of course, I'll like that, you doofus! She'd laugh. You already are my knight in shining armor!

I promise I'll always keep you safe.

She'd play with her second-hand dolls while Gareth played with a handheld video game player that Paige had given him as a birthday present when he turned 11. Then three months later, his mother found it and pawned it. It broke his heart, but no one would ever know it. When Paige learned of what happened, she bought him a new one and this time, Gareth left it in Riley's room, on the top bunk bed, underneath the pillow that was his. There, he'd play the games late into the night, escaping into his hopeful world as she slept in the lower bunk, oblivious.

Still, she was mad as hell, and not even the memories of the past they'd shared before he gave Riley her first romantic kiss could wipe out what she'd seen in Paige's garden office. It was three years since she'd last been with Gareth, but it still stung. It hurt. It burned.

What she saw was bad enough, Gareth and Paige lying on the daybed in the far corner of the room. But it was the words she heard him say that got to her. How could he tell Paige the same three words he used to whisper to her?

I love you.

She wanted to scream at him. What do you mean, you love her? How long have you loved her? How long has this been going on?

Riley wanted to pummel him. She wanted to punch him and break his nose and destroy his face and, while she was at it, kick him in the balls and make sure he never again had the use of his dick.

She had so many ideas on how to make him suffer—just as many ideas on how to make Paige suffer. But the mere thought of her sister conjured up the faces of her nephews. No matter how angry she was at Paige, how could she allow her rage to spill over onto those three boys? How could she punish Paige without punishing them?

It was unfair. Why did Paige have to get everything she wanted? She had beauty, confidence, a modeling career, a filthy-rich husband and the perfect family. As if that wasn't enough, she even had Riley's ex-boyfriend.

She shouldn't be upset, Riley thought. It had been three years since she'd been with Gareth - why was she so upset? Still, of all the women he could have chosen to be with, why her sister?

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