Authors: Lucy Swing
LUCY SWINGThis book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locations are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events, places, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.Copyright © 2012 by Lucy Swing
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduction in whole or in part in any form.For further information, please contact Lucy Swing at[email protected]Book Cover design by Lucy SwingModel: Abby Marie Summers
To my family, who make all things meaningful and possible.
The Deep End
In the Night
On my Way
Practice Makes Perfect
Stranger in the House
Camping gone Wrong
I knew what was happening, even though I could not understand why. I was falling; that much was unmistakable. The air rushed around me, buffeting me.
What would I do once I arrived? Would I even remember this past existence? I closed my eyes and resigned myself to the feeling of peace that the wind beneath me always brought.
Soon it would all be over.
I finally reached the ground. A shiver of energy ran across my skin and back as each cell began its transformation. I was being born. I opened my eyes and glanced around at the strange, colorful world. The trees stood tall, casting shadows like great carpets unrolled from their bases. The sky above me was like a dome closed over a music box. I had never seen anything more beautiful . . . had I? I shook my head to clear the haze.
I tried to balance myself on a fallen tree trunk. I wasn’t used to walking on these feet. I looked down, wiggling my toes, and let go of the tree and took a few steps forward. My body felt heavy, and then darkness fell over me.
“Jade! I swear, if you don’t get up now . . .” Mom closed the bedroom door, trusting the threat of the unsaid to throw me into motion.
I groaned and kicked off the warm covers.
“I’m up!” I called back to her.
I sat up on my bed and dangled my feet over the edge. It was the first day of senior year, and I was dreading it.
I moved over to the closet, where I chided myself for being too lazy to pick an outfit last night. I grabbed a pair of denim shorts and my old AC/DC long-sleeved T-shirt and made my way to the bathroom. I was almost done with my morning routine when I heard the door creak.
“Jade? Are you almost ready?” My best friend’s high-pitched singsong voice called from behind the door. “Are you decent?”
“Yeah, come in. I’m almost done.” I leaned closer to the mirror and applied the black eye-liner to my lower lid. Claire sat on the edge of the bathtub and played with a strand of loose hair. She was wearing a white blouse embroidered with pink flowers that flowed weightlessly over her body, accentuated only by the glimmer of her tanned skin. She seemed to always look effortlessly perfect,
Summer had been uneventful; we mostly spent our days at North Beach, lying around and soaking the sun, cooling off with the occasional dip in the ocean. Granted, after the first week of doing absolutely nothing, things got kind of boring. There is so much one can do in a sitting position at the beach. I shouldn’t complain though, watching half clothed boys was very,veryenjoyable. Instead, we opted for something a little more active, hiking. Hollow Falls is entrapped by long miles of forests, so finding the right spot took us close to three weeks. It was worth it. Our favorite spot became what we began calling as ‘Fantasy Land.’ The tall, maple trees casted shadows on the forest floor. The magical silence that seemed to weight upon us was only interrupted by the creaking of leaves, branches and bark under our feet. Beyond the three mile walk there was a glittering creek, surrounded with gravel banks, where we enjoyed the rest of our afternoon splashing about.
“Ready for another fun-filled year of schoolwork?” She met my gaze in the mirror, and I left the memories of sunny, carefree days behind as I rolled my eyes.
“It’s going to be torture,” I said, putting my makeup bag back in the drawer. “But at least it’s our last year.” I picked up the messenger bag from the floor next to my bed and gave my room another quick glance. I shouldn’t be in a rush to get out of Hollow Falls, but somehow I needed to. Hollow Falls is home to 5,385 people, and, as the song goes, “where everybody knows your name.” I felt suffocated in such a small town. I had dreams of going places, things I wanted to do that I couldn’t see myself doing in this pesky, minuscule town.
Claire followed me downstairs. Mom was in the kitchen, busy packing my lunch. On the table were two plates of pancakes, eggs, and bacon.
Claire was as big a presence in this house as I. We seemed to be attached at the hip, and she practically lived here—mostly because of Trent. He was another foster kid in the Langleys’ house, and a total creep.
“Mom, I’m not really that hungry,” I said.
“You’re going to need all the energy you can get, just to stay awake after last night.”
Claire’s eyebrows scrunched in puzzlement.
“Oh, Mom, it was just a nightmare.” Not precisely the truth, but as close as I was willing to let things get. It wouldn’t go well if I told them what really happened—what had been happening all summer long.
Claire and I sat down at the table, and I was surprised at how hungry I actually was. After I had stuffed myself, I pushed around what was left on my plate. Deep in thought, I felt my eyelids get heavy, and that quickly I was lost in the darkness behind them.
“Ki-sikil-lil-la-ke,” came the whisper that only I could hear. As the word rolled softly out, a flash of red burst in the darkness. I gasped and open my eyes in shock.
“Are you okay?” Claire’s voice was distant, as if muffled by an invisible water bubble around me. It was the cool touch of her hand on mine that brought me back to reality. She was staring at me.
I wanted to tell her everything. All about the eerie yet wonderful dreams of a gorgeous dark-haired stranger who kept me awake night after night, haunting my sleep. And about the nightmares of being chased by the dark figure with fire instead of hair. How I woke up night after night gasping for air the moment the figure caught up with me, its icy fingers digging into my arms. But how could I? I gave a low, soft sigh and went over to the kitchen sink, dropping my plate in it and giving Mom a kiss.
“Ready?” I asked Claire, ruffling her perfectly styled blond bob in passing. I giggled and ran to the door to keep a safe distance from any retaliation. “’Bye, Mom,” I yelled, running outside and down the driveway, where I waited until Claire caught up.
“I am so going to get you later,” she said as she pulled out her compact mirror and fixed a few loose strands of hair.
“There, there. All perfect now,” I said as we began walking. I felt a little twinge of jealousy. Shewasperfect. Between her golden hair that seemed to shine like ripe wheat, and her perfect almond-shaped gray eyes, I sometimes had a hard time being next to her.
Brushwood High was only a few blocks from my house, and the weather was nice, so we walked. The sky was bare of clouds, and the temperature was perfect. The streets were quiet. Only the softeep, eepof a chickadee, staking out his turf in the rhododendron bushes, broke the silence. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, absorbing the last bouquet of summer smells: honeysuckle and chamomile and horsemint and new-mown grass. Once winter came and the cold started seeping into our bones, we would be forced to take Claire’s yellow Beetle to stay warm.
Brushwood was different from any other school I knew. It was privately owned, and mostly only well-off parents could afford the tuition. I had often wondered why my parents worked longer hours just so I could go there. An even bigger mystery was how Claire’s foster parents managed it.
The school was ancient. Its gray limestone walls made it seem cold, but the inside was anything but. The building had once been a mansion, and the owners kept it that way, though with a few add-ons, such as the cafeteria and a brand-new west wing. The rooms were big, considering that they had to accommodate only about twenty students each.
We were walking along the narrow hallway, deep in conversation, when someone banged into me, knocking the few books I was carrying to the floor. I looked back, even though I knew who would be standing there: Amy Crayhill, all-American mean girl. She grinned at her minion, Savannah, and mouthed a fakeOops!my way. Typical.
And when I turned back around, there he was! Tall, muscular—and holding outmybooks.Hello, Muscles!My eyes worked their way up to his face. As if that body weren’t enough, his face almost made me melt.No way. Gorgeous!
Claire was staring at him, her mouth slightly open. It seemed she agreed with my assessment.
“Here you go,” he said, handing me my books. His low and deep voice sent ripples of intensity through my body.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even make my mouth utter a simple thank-you. I just stood there gaping like an idiot.
Claire exhaled loudly and took the books from him. “Thanks,” she groaned as she pulled me toward our lockers. “What’s gotten into you?”
I glanced back and was surprised to find him still in the same spot, looking at me. My lips pulled at the edges, and I managed to smile back at him.
“You know him?” I asked Claire, failing in my feeble attempt at nonchalance.
“No,” she said. Then she brightened. “Oh, look, there’s Nate!” She let go of my arm and handed me my books before hurrying away.
I shamelessly stole another look down the hallway, but he was gone. There was a weird buzzing energy inside me. Excitement, maybe? No one ever movedintoour nowhere little berg; it was usually the other way around.
As usual, Nate was leaning against our lockers, his nose in a car magazine. He lifted his eyes from the page just as Claire launched herself at him. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. One week apart, and they acted as if they hadn’t seen each other all summer.
“Gross.” I glanced around, scouting to make sure no teachers were looking. When they finally came up for air I said, “I don’t know how you do it, Nate. She spent the whole week whining about you being gone.” I slid my books into the locker and arranged them neatly by height. “Oh, I wonder what he’s doing now,” I said, mimicking her. “Oh, I hope he’s safe.” I rolled my eyes.
“You’re just jealous,” she said, sticking her tongue out.
I laughed, mostly because of the mouse like way her nose wrinkled up. I walked past them and toward class. I lost myself in thoughts of the encounter with the new kid, hearing Claire’s giggles coming from behind.
First period, the class I paid the least attention in, was world history. The first day of the year was always rough, and today would have been no exception, but the exciting prospect of seeinghimagain kept me awake, alert, and alive, ready to listen to Mr. Morris’s every droning word about pre-Roman Europe.
Nate, Claire, and I had been inseparable since the beginning of high school. In fact, those two were already glued together well before I even metthem. People often made fun that I was the eternal third wheel on their bicycle built for two.
I found my way to the last row and took the seat closest to the window so I could enjoy the view of the clear blue water in the bay. Wishing it were still summer, I gazed out at the boats on the water.
“Can’t we sit closer to the front?” Claire hissed. “We look like hermits back here.”
“Be my guest,” I said, my eyes still glued to the boats. “I like it back here.” It was true. Being able to see everyone gave me some sense of control—no sneak attacks could come from behind. Maybe being tormented by Amy all these years was starting to leave a scar after all. Claire sighed loudly, prompting me to look at her as she sat down at the desk in front of me, pouting. Nate took the seat beside her.
As I busied myself pulling out my notebook from my backpack, I caught a glimpse of Claire and Nate. Their mouths had dropped in unison, and their eyes were locked on something in the hall, seen through the glass of our now closed classroom door. There was nothing but a blank wall outside.
“Are you guys okay?” I asked.
They closed their mouths and nodded, trying to make it seem as though all was well. Claire opened her notebook, while Nate leaned back on his seat, entwining his fingers behind his head. But their expressions remained strange. They were always the very picture of calm, peace, and tranquility, but right now their eyes showed a mixture of surprise and anxiety. Almost crackling with tension, they looked at each other but didn’t say a word.
“Seriously guys,” I said, “what’s up?”
The abrupt opening of the classroom door captured everyone’s attention. I jumped in my seat, banging my knees against my desk, half expecting to see a blood-crazed zombie come lurching in. But it was only Mr. Morris, fumbling through an apologetic explanation instead of enjoying his prerogative to be late.
The clamor subsided as Morris began the usual introductions and explanations, with the usual little chirps and flutters from the class interrupting his routine speech. A minute or two into this, the door swung open again, andhewalked in, with his backpack slung over one shoulder.
I looked down at my notebook and tried to hide the smile that crept over my face. From the corner of my eye, I saw Nate and Claire staring at me, but I was too excited to pay them much attention. The latecomer handing in his tardy slip was far more interesting.
“Oh, so the new kid is late on his very first day,” Mr. Morris joked as he placed the slip on top of some scattered papers on his desk. He looked over his roster. “Don’t worry, you get the standard punishment: staying awake for the rest of class.”
A few alert kids, including me, chuckled, but we all stopped when he spoke again: “All right, everyone,” he continued while the new kid stood next to him, looking a little self-conscious. “Our newcomer’s name is Avan Thomas. Someone, please let him sit down without making him feel awkward.” Avan took a step forward.
I gave him a quick overall glance again, and then my eyes ran back to his face, where, to my surprise and discomfort, they met his. I turned away, pretending to be casual, pretending that his being here didn’t faze me in the least, but I still felt strangely embarrassed. I was relieved when he put those eyes to work scanning for an empty desk—which happened to be the one beside mine.
Before sitting down, he smiled and insolently saluted everyone who had been staring. I giggled under my breath as Mr. Morris went on with his droning.
After searching his bag, Avan reluctantly turned my way. I felt every muscle in my body stiffen up. He was about to tap my shoulder when Claire grabbed my arm so hard, she almost pulled me out of my seat.
Way to go, Claire—make me look clumsy!I thought. Though I have to admit, if there was a wall in front of me, it was a good bet I would walk straight into it.
“What!” I hissed in an exasperated tone.
“Pay attention to class,” she said, giving my arm a final squeeze.
I looked at Avan and gave him an apologetic smile. I waited for him to continue with what he was going to say, but instead he looked away and at Nick Frost, who was sitting on his other side, and leaned over. After a short whisper, Nick dug into his backpack and pulled out a pen, which he handed nervously to Avan. No one ever talked to Nick. He had transferred from Hollow Falls public school in sophomore year and had instantly been treated like a leper. I guess the curly red hair, acne, and thick-framed reading glasses didn’t help his case.
As I looked forward, trying hard to listen to what was in store for the rest of the year; I could see some of the girls in class turn around and bat their mascaraed eyelashes at Avan. Some were whispering to each other, while others just “happened” to look his way. Could they perhaps be a little more obvious? He had been in the room for all of three minutes, and he already had half the girls drooling over him. I looked at him from the corner of my eye. Hewasdreamy.
It was pretty clear that he would not be another Nick Frost.
Close to the end of class, while Mr. Morris was still busy scrawling unreadable hieroglyphics on the chalkboard, Avan finally spoke to me.
I turned to find him smiling at me, his dark hair falling over his blue eyes.
“Hi.” My voice trembled. Why was he making me so nervous?
“You’re still awake,” he said, doing a mock stretch and messing up his hair with his hand. He had a thick black leather bracelet on his wrist—the very one I was always eyeing at the local Hot Topic store.
“Barely,” I said, laughing. “I’m Jade.” By instinct, I suppose, I stuck out my hand.
“Avan,” he said, shaking it.
I could never have prepared myself for what happened next. The instant our hands touched, an explosion of light blinded me. My hand tensed up so hard, my joints hurt. Through the dazzling brightness, I could see the charge in his blue eyes. The image before me changed into one of me floating in the sky, falling . . . until I reachedhim. I felt his hand go limp, and I instantly let go, realizing that I was holding my breath.
I took a deep breath, and the blazing light slowly dimmed. It took some time for my eyes to adjust, and a little bit longer for my heart to stop trying to jump out of my chest.
After a first period that had proved to be anything but boring, the bell rang.
“That’s quite a grip you’ve got there, Jade,” Avan said, rubbing his hand in make-believe pain and smiling nervously as he got up.
“Y-yeah,” I stuttered. Trying to lighten the mood, I added, “I work out—what can I say?”
Had he felt it, too? Had he seen the bright light? I looked nervously at Claire, who had turned to face us. Her eyes looked ready to pop out of their sockets.
What the hell had just happened?
Any trace of that girlish excitement was wiped away by what I can only call an instant transformation of mybeing.
Avan got up and walked toward the door, melting into the eager, boisterous throng of dismissed students. He was tall enough that I could see him out in the hall, making a quick study of his schedule before disappearing down the hall.
It felt as though I sat still forever at my desk before I dared to sling my messenger bag over my head and look at Claire. Everything now felt normal; all systems seemed to be working fine. This heartened me. Claire looked at me and then to where Avan had disappeared.
“You have no idea what you’ve just done,” she murmured.
2 THE DEEP END
“What is your problem, Claire?” I asked through clenched teeth. “Why are you being so weird?”
She looked at me, and her features suddenly softened. She smiled and waved me off as if I were crazy. “Look, the guy seems nice,” she said. “But I don’t think he’s your type, you know? Talking in class and getting into trouble isn’t worth it.”
I rolled my eyes. “Seriously?” I said. “You and I talk all the time. What’s so different now?” I could feel that the topic was somehow upsetting me.
Claire and Nate led me out of the classroom and onward to next period. I was a little uneasy about standing up and taking the first few steps, not knowing if more blinding lights in my head would again reduce me to Jell-O. The hallway was still busy with students greeting each other, excited to catch up with friends they hadn’t seen in months. Adding to the clamor was the clatter of lockers opening and slamming shut.
“Since when do I have a type?” I said. “It’s not like I’ve had boyfriends or anything. I would think that file is still open for further investigation.” Apparently, I still had all the charm of a Siamese cat. My trademark sarcasm seemed to have come away from the experience unscathed.
“What Claire is trying to say, Jade, is that the new kid doesn’t seem to come from the right kind of crowd for you.” Nate said. He seemed to think it important that he go on the record as siding with his girlfriend.
Crowd?How would either of them have the foggiest notion what kind of “crowd” was right for me? It seemed as if they were trying to convince themselves more than me. Claire gave a sort of noncommittal nod, and we continued walking toward our next class.
Suddenly, the first day back at school was proving to be relentlessly difficult. At lunch, we went to the courtyard and sat under my favorite oak tree. I was halfway through my sandwich when the mind-flooding voice came through, loud as thunder, with nothing I could do to resist it. I got only a dim understanding of what I was being told again: the same strange word with the same sense of hearing it as a warning: “Ki-sikil-lil-la-ke.” I squinted and shook my head. Claire and Nate looked at me in unison with arched brows.
“Are you okay?” Nate asked. I must have nodded, because he continued, while attempting to touch my hand, which immediately darted away to hide behind me. “You sure don’t look too well.”
“Yeah . . . just a headache.” Like my hand, my mouth seemed to be working independently of me. I set my tray to the side and put my head down on the wooden picnic table. I felt the warmth of Claire’s hand on the back of my neck and jerked away.
“What?” she asked, putting her hand on my shoulder. But no light blinded me this time. There was only a sense of peace. I lay back on the grass with my head on my arm and closed my eyes.
* * *
A small shake woke me from the light sleep I had fallen into. Nate was gone, and Claire was looking at me with concern.
“Are yousureeverything’s okay?” she said. I opened my mouth to tell her, but would she even believe me? Could she possibly? “Do you want me to walk you to the Nurse office?”
I shook my head and looked at my watch. “I’ll be okay,” I said as I picked up my lunch sack and books, and we walked past the cafeteria and back toward our lit class. I hurried in and sat down in the far left corner. By now it would not have been a stretch to complain of a headache. It seemed that the dam holding the force of what I had been resisting all morning just crumbled. Usually, the voice was always fleeting, but its effects lasted quite a while and sapped me of any vigor. All I could do was rub my temples, sigh, and wish I could be in my bed.
The fluorescent lights above us were not helping—forcing me to squint, adding to the pressure in my forehead. I wished darkness would wash over me. As if on cue, the light bulbs around my seat went off with an audible clicking sound. Mr. Gatley sent one of the girls in the front row to tell the maintenance man about it.
I reached for the small pocket of my bag, where I kept a few Band-Aids and some ibuprofen. I threw two of the tablets onto my tongue and washed them down with a squeeze from an apple juice carton I grabbed from Claire’s bag. She let me off with just a scowl. I half smiled and rested my head, which felt heavier than ever, on my left hand—yet another symptom of my need to be always vigilant. “Better heads up than heads rolling,” I always said. But why couldn’t I ever just let my guard down even a little?
It was odd that after the morning’s strange events and the last booming intrusion by the voice, I was starting to think that maybe I should try to communicate with it. Perhaps the voice that was warning me over and over about that unpronounceable thing might shed a little more light on what it meant.
Yup, I was definitely going off the deep end. Was I really contemplating a conversation with a voice in my head? As if it weren’t bad enough being the only one hearing it!
It wouldn’t hurt, right? I would still try when I got home. I was usually alone until Mom came home from work at five thirty. That would give me enough time, though Claire was most likely going to hang out after school. It seemed that Mom had gotten a bargain: two girls for the price of one.
The rest of the day went smoothly and without further mishap. It looked as though luckwason my side—I found myself in three other classes with Avan. He seemed to be taking it in stride, and actually spoke to me again as we walked together to our last period, biology.
With my head resting on my arms, I opened my eyes and watched the way Avan took notes and listened in class. He was absolutely gorgeous. He was sitting across the room from me, but I could swear that I heard his heart beating. Strong and steady. His eyes met mine, and his heart beat faster—or was it mine?
Before I knew it, Claire and I were walking home, feeling the light breeze move pleasantly around us. I babbled about Avan for a moment, but only until I realized Claire wasn’t listening to a word I was saying. As usual when they were apart, she was already texting Nate. I let out a low sigh, and resigned myself to walk in silence.
Finally, in the peace and calm of home, though my head felt quite clear, I told Claire I was going to take a shower—the perfect excuse to have some alone time and try to evoke the voice. I abandoned Claire, who needed no looking after while lounging happily downstairs, her eyes glued to the TV. I couldn’t understand her fascination with those reality shows. There was no real anything; it was all scripted, and everyone knew it.
I wanted to see if the voice would come. I wanted to try to provoke it, wanted it to know that I heard it loud and clear. In my room, I made sure Claire was still babbling away on the phone, with the TV on, before I closed the door.
I lay on my bed with my ankles crossed and my eyes closed. What now? I lay there, but the only voice that came to me was Claire’s muffled chatter from downstairs.Come on, voice—talk.
“Hi,” I croaked out loud. “Oh, how stupid,” I whispered to myself, embarrassed at the thought of being heard. I cleared my throat and continued softly, looking at the closed door. “Can you hear me?” I closed my eyes and waited for an answer, but none came. At least the voice was keeping quiet. Should that mean anything? “If you can hear me, I have heard your warning and I understand.” I didn’t really have a clue; I just needed it to stop. “You don’t need to keep repeating yourself over and over again.”
I held my breath. Had it heard me? Was it that easy? I opened my eyes, uncrossed my legs, rolled onto my side, and enjoyed the first real quiet time I had had all day.
The comfort of the sheets, and the peace of mind my little experiment gave me lulled me into a meditative half-awake, half-asleep state. I imagined again the moment when our hands met, and the thrilling sensation that had coursed through me, changing me. I became aware that it felt as though I was getting used to being in a new skin. There was an especially strange sensation wrapping around my shoulders, but I didn’t find it unpleasant. I dreamed of limitless, beckoning skies. There was a soft whisper. “She will soon be coming.Ki-sikil-lil-la-ke.” It was soft and low, and so clear. The vision faded, and I opened my eyes. I had finally understood correctly.
3 IN THE NIGHT
Nate came over to the house around six. Claire blew on her freshly painted nails and carefully closed the pink nail polish. Even though both she and Nate ate with my family almost every night, tonight just we kids were going out for some burgers at the local diner, giving Mom and Dad an unusual chance for some time alone. Why celebrate the first day back at school? I had no idea, but I was pretty sure that whoever came up with this tradition must have been a total nerd.
Charley’s Diner was the most popular hangout spot for kids in our school, and to get a good table, you had to get there early. Nate dropped us off at the front so we could grab a booth before the crowd showed up. We sat on opposite sides and both reached for a menu. It was an involuntary motion, I suppose, since we always ordered the same thing: a Biggie Burger with the works—cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and bacon on a toasty grilled bun. My mouth watered at the mere thought.
I watched the door open, expecting it to be Nate, but instead it was the oh-so-popular Amy and her cheerleading clique. After them came a couple of the guys from the football team and, to my surprise, Avan.
My muscled stiffened.
Amy had always made it her mission in life to go out of her way to make every kid at Brushwood who was not worthy of her friendship feel miserable. Even the popular students were harassed sometimes, and the only one truly immune to her viciousness was any attractive boy—in this case, Avan. When Amy’s little coterie found their seats, I could see that she was behaving exactly as expected. She patted the spot next to her, and Avan followed. She batted her long, dark eyelashes at him as she twirled her hair. I sank lower in my seat, raising the menu so they wouldn’t see me . . . sohewouldn’t see me.
“What’s going on?”
Nate had walked in, but I had been too preoccupied with hating Amy to notice. He pulled my menu to the side.
I rolled my eyes and pulled the menu back to my face, this time right up to my nose. “Amy’s here, and she brought the new kid along,” I said, nodding toward their table. Nate closed his eyes and shook his head slightly. Claire sat with a straw in her mouth. She followed my gaze to the corner table where Amy and her crew were sitting, and gave them a look of disapproval.
“Well, there goes another victim.” Claire sat straighter as the waitress approached with our usual chocolate milkshakes.
“Why are you so down on him?” I said. Whatever she had against the guy was a bit of a mystery. Claire and Nate never treated anyone like an outcast—they knew what that felt like.
“Jade, darling, think about it. Heissitting with Amy, and you know the kind of people she attracts, so. . .”
She did have a valid point there. The only kind of people who dated Amy tended to have a pretty thin cerebral cortex. Amy’s fake laughter echoed throughout the diner every time Avan spoke. She tossed her hair to the side and moved closer to him.
My hands balled into fists every time she touched him.
I wanted to enjoy the evening. I really did try. I wantednotto care about her or about her being with him. But it was proving futile. Even though my eyes kept seeking him, he never once looked my way. I assumed he was too busy being cool. Now that he was in with popular crowd, it seemed that nothing else mattered. We finished our meals and sat for a while, talking about everything and nothing.
I needed to stall our departure. I didn’t just want to get up and walk past them. Knowing Amy, she would take any chance to make a fool of me. That would be the perfect way to kill the competition she saw in Claire and me. I was hoping her group would leave before we did, but they just kept talking. What could she ever have to say this long? I got my chance to escape when Avan got up to go to the restroom. I practically pulled Claire and Nate bodily out of their chairs, and the moment Avan stepped out of sight we made our exit.
Amy didn’t let me down, though. She piped up when she saw us walking past, but we moved too fast for her to finish a sentence. After we were a few steps out the door, she came running out with Savannah and Melissa, two of her cheerleader friends.
“Look, girls, there go the three little freaks. Going home to make your little voodoo dolls?” She stood with her weight on one leg, and her hand on her hip.
I usually would just let her taunt and insult me. I had spent years learning how to block her out, but seeing her with Avan had woken something in me—something that wasn’t necessarily nice. I turned and walked right up to her face.
“What is your problem, Amy? Huh? I don’t get it. You don’t feel good enough about yourself, so you have to put everyone else down? Why don’t you find a better way of living your life, and leaveusout of your misery.”
Her friends dropped their jaws in disbelief. She tried to hide her shock, but it was too late. She scowled at me a little longer and added, “Don’t even think for a second you are invited to my party this Friday, freak.” With a flip of her hair, she strutted back into the diner.
“Ooh-h-h-h!” I grunted the moment the door closed behind her. I kicked the ground. “I cannotstandher! Who does she think she is?” I wasn’t talking to anyone in particular—just hoping that one day I would be able to understand. Claire looped her arm through mine and pulled me forward.
Nate had parked a couple blocks away from the diner, and as we hurried along the dark streets of downtown, I saw something move from the corner of my eye. I peered at it. The person or animal was crawling strangely on the sidewalk across the street. It seemed as though someone had a bit too much to drink or had fallen.
Nate and Claire were on that side of me, making a clear view impossible. I slowed down to get a better look. At first it was too dark. The nearest streetlight to where the person was slouching had been shattered—I could still see the glinting glass shards on the ground. I couldn’t make out what the figure was doing, but as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could see it crawl across the sidewalk, into an alley, and (unless I reallywasgoing insane) upontothe side of the building. I stopped, frozen.
“Whatisthat?” I said, louder than necessary. My voice carried on the empty street.
Both Claire and Nate turned and glanced across the street. At that moment, the person or animal climbed down off the wall and began making its way over to us on all fours. It approached with fast, jerking motions. Its head was cocked sideways, and its face was covered in a dark, shiny liquid. It couldn’t be sweat. It looked more like blood.
Claire searched for my hand and pulled me forward. “Run!” she cried, and our feet pounded the gravel as we made our way toward the car. She dipped her hand into the pocket of her jacket and fumbled with the keys. Once, twice, she tried to unlock it, and nothing happened.
I looked back. Nate was falling behind. “Come on, Nate! Run!” I yelled. The thing was still coming at us on all fours, its head cocked to one side and then the other in what looked like painful motions. I could hear a gurgling sound in its chest as it closed in on us.
The car lights blinked twice as it unlocked. Claire swung the back door open and shoved me into the seat, then got into the front passenger seat. My heart thudded like a jackhammer. My hand hovered over the lock button, ready to slam it down the second Nate got in. I looked out the back window, just as Nate trotted up and got into the car. He turned to face Claire and then me with a smile.
“The man was just lost,” he said as he started the engine. “I guided him to where he needed to go.”
“Th— that was no man!” I gasped. “I . . . uh, don’t know what it was, but . . . uh, but it was ugly and creepy, and definitelynota man!” I was still trying to catch my breath, and yelling wasn’t helping.
“Oh, Jade, you watch way too many scary movies,” Claire joked.
If it was a man that was lost, then why had she taken off running with me? Isawthat thing, and it wasnothuman. I kept playing the image in my mind, its body hairless and darkened as if it had been burned, and the way its neck was bent. I shivered.
“Seriously, Jade, it was nothing,” Nate said as he pressed on the gas and moved the car out onto the street. “Your imagination just created something that wasn’t there.”
I took one more look back, but there was nothing there—just the dark, empty street. I sank lower on my seat and closed my eyes, trying to get the image of the creature out of my head.
4 SOLID VEIL
I barely slept that night. To say I was exhausted would be an understatement, yet sleep eluded me anyway. I kept thinking about that thing by the diner, and as much as I tried to pretend I might have been seeing more than was there, I couldn’t let it go. I kept waking from nightmares of being chased by that thing, and in the dream it was actually speaking—or, rather, barking. Every time the creature had come too close I got rescued by the same really hot stranger. I couldn’t get his deep-green eyes off my mind. Why was he always in my dreams? What did it mean? I woke up so many times; I finally decided just to get up. It was 5:50.
Now that I was out of bed and had turned on the light that sat on top of my nightstand, the nightmares and memories were beginning to seem a little ridiculous. I decided not to think about them. The thought of going to school bolstered me with renewed excitement. I would be seeing Avan again. During the night, I had also tried not to think of him. And here is where the green-eyed stranger came in.
Stop it! He isn’t real!
I was being careless with these feelings about Avan. I had just met the guy and I was already obsessing over him, which was so not me. What if his pleasantries toward me were just the same old new-kid’s-first-day-making-friends syndrome? It was definitely a possibility.
I went through my entire closet looking for the perfect outfit before finally resigning myself to the reality that there was no such thing. So I opted to wear my favorite dark blue jeans and my loose-fitting black Metallica tee, the one with the angel wings on a skull.
In freshman year, it had been decided by popular consensus that I was the emo girl. I think part of that was Amy’s doing, expecting people to alienate me just for being in that category. Some people could be very closed-minded—they figured that because I had jet black hair, was pale to a fault, and loved to dress in black, I was a goth. I didn’t mind playing along, though. I always had a little bit of darkness skulking in me. Not that I went out of my way to look this way—I just had those features. Almost every other girl in school went out of her way to get one of those layered haircuts and two-tone dye jobs—definitely not something I would do.
I took my time with my morning routine and made my way downstairs before Mom was awake. I started her coffee and got something to eat before Claire came to pick me up. Dad was an early riser and usually out of the house by five thirty, ready to start his workday. The only quality time I shared with him was in the evenings, especially when we sneaked in a late-night horror movie. I never got to spend enough time with him because of his long hours at the shop, but I was definitely a daddy’s girl.
I was busy making eggs when I heard Mom walk down the stairs and stall at the entrance to the kitchen.
“Am I dying and no one’s had the guts to tell me?” She was that shocked seeing me awake and industrious this early.
“What? Oh, no.” I started laughing. “I was up early, so I figured I’d do something productive. Of course, if you don’t want it, I can . . .” I held the plate precariously over the garbage can.
“No! This is great,” she said as she sat down. “I could certainly get used to a little bit of being served.” I poured a cup of coffee and brought it over to her, set it next to her plate, and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
Mom smiled but said in mock concern, “You are seriously worrying me, Jade. Have the body snatchers come?”
“Right, Mom.” I rolled my eyes as I walked away. “You’re making it seem like I’m a horrible child, or something. I’m just . . .” I waited for the words to manifest in my head, but only one came. “Happy.”
Claire did her usual three beeps out front. Any other day, that would have been my wake-up call. In five minutes, she would be knocking on the door and heading upstairs to make me move faster. After I gave Mom another kiss I headed out the door, sneaking my way unseen to the car.
“So this is what you do while you wait for me to get ready, huh?” I said as I popped up next to the half-open passenger window.
Claire nearly put out her eye with the eye-liner.
“Jeez, Jade, you almost made me wet my pants!” she gasped. She looked me up and down when I got in.
“Yes, I know, I’m up and out. Can’t a girl be excited to go to school?” I had caught the question mark in her face.
“Um, as far as I’m concerned, no, you can’t,” she said, smiling while backing out of the driveway. We rounded the end of my cul-de-sac street, and I rolled my window down. I could feel the wind on my face again, hopefully taming down the blush I could feel spreading over my face as I thought abouthim.
We made it to school early for the first time ever. That meant we were in uncharted territory, so we sat in the cafeteria, making idle talk, all the while eyeing the clock on the wall, waiting for the bell to ring. I could barely contain the smile threatening to take over my face as we approached our classroom.
I tried to keep my cool, walking in and casually scanning the room, leaving the best for last. There he was, making all my memories of him seem a little obsolete. He was talking to Nick, who babbled on and on with all the pent-up conversation that no one had cared enough to hear out of him since he got here. Poor guy must not be used to any attention. While Avan had his back turned to me I decided to take him in slowly: the tousled black hair, the tanned skin, his easy way of moving. I didn’t need to see those deep-blue eyes—I couldfeelthem. I had never seen such electricity in anyone’s eyes before. They could even put Claire’s to shame.
Just as I approached, Avan turned, and the lights emphasized his full lips. I caught myself daydreaming about what kissing them would feel like, and felt my whole face blush. I quickly decided to distract those thoughts by looking out the window. I hadn’t noticed someone else’s book bag on the floor, and I tripped over it, losing my balance. Claire, who was loyally behind me, steadied me before I could make an even bigger fool of myself. Snickers erupted here and there. I looked down at the floor and sat down, embarrassed.
“Hey, there.” His crooked smile revealed a perfect set of pearly whites.Perfection!“That was quite an entrance.”
Great—I will never see the end of this.I smiled awkwardly, hoping my little performance would be soon forgotten.
This morning, with his greeting still echoing in my mind, I realized I wanted to know everything that made him, him. He complimented me on the red strands I had just put in my hair, and, in a more relaxed and natural manner than yesterday, we got to talking. The topics ranged from music (thanks to my choice of T-shirts) to movies and books. It felt really good to find someone, besides my best friends, with whom I had so much in common. I kept a safe distance from him, afraid the touch of our skin would rocket me into space again.
Mr. Morris walked in late again and got on with his lecture on the origin of the ancient Etruscans. As much as I tried to concentrate, I found myself glancing sideways at Avan. Every time I stole a look, he was studying me in return. Butterflies did aerobatics in my stomach. Could he really be interested in me? I didn’t see how. Maybe Amy had told him about our little encounter last night, and now he thought I was a freak, too. Despite all these warring thoughts, I did manage to get some of Mr. Morris’s lecture.
I have to confess that I was ecstatic having him sit so close. For one thing, it would make getting to know him easier. It may seem silly, but hey, I had seen adults get excited over a lot less. I was on a cloud.
The lesson droned on, and I was losing focus. I thought it was from all the sleep I wasn’t getting, but I also began feeling that horrible sensation that heralded the unwelcome voice. I was really hoping not to have an episode in class. Something was trying to erupt in my mind. I resisted, but I sensed an unspoken warning trying to rise up again. Soon after, my back began tingling in response and my heart rate quickened.
Maybe I was just coming down with something.I rubbed my neck and rested my head on my other hand.
I got the sense that Nate and Claire were focusing on me again. But they weren’t—in fact, it struck me how quiet Claire was being. Given the way she acted yesterday when I was about to talk to Avan, I was surprised she hadn’t nudged a hole in my side by now. I tapped on her shoulder and silently ribbed her about being so quiet. History and theology were two of her fortes, and she listened to those lessons with near devotion. But she didn’t look much in the mood for jokes. She had both arms rested on the desk, one hand cupping the other. Her gray eyes were distant, staring into space.
“Are you all right?” I whispered. It wasn’t every day that her bubbly, loud personality got this subdued. She shook out of her gaze and looked at me. The corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly. “You know, that’s a lame excuse for a smile,” I added, looking over at Nate. Were they fighting? No, not likely. I had known them for over three years and had yet to see them fight. Sure, they had disagreements, but sometimes it seemed to be more of a show. His eyes were glued to the chalkboard, and he systematically looked down as he wrote notes. The way he held on to that pen seemed painful.
I had begun doodling on my notebook when warm fingers tapped my arm. The spot where his fingers touched tingled with his energy, but at least I saw no blinding flash of light this time. Before I looked up at him, I noticed a folded paper beside my arm. As I unfolded the note, I saw a simple sentence that made my insides jump with excitement: “Would you have lunch with me?”
Claire’s chair smashed into my desk with full force, and she walked toward the front of the class.
“Excuse me, Miss Wagner, where are you going?” Mr. Morris said, moving to stand in her way.
She didn’t say anything, just stared at him. I saw his eyes widen just for an instant, and he moved aside, letting Claire walk past.
“Nate?” I hissed, my eyes glued to the glass door Claire had just walked out. “What the hell was that? Is everything okay?” I turned back to him just in time to see him nod. His eyes were glued to the door. Just then the bell rang. I stayed in my seat a moment longer. . I looked at the paper in my hand and wrote on it, then passed it back to Avan.
I got up and began gathering my things; just then Claire came strolling back in. Her features were hard and her body tense as she sat back down in front of me.
“What was that all about?” I asked, raising my voice so she could hear me amid the general chatter all around us. I waited for an answer, but none came. Instead, as I stared intently at her I heard her voice in my head. I was sure because her lips never moved.
“They’re here. The place is infested.”
“Wh-what did you just say?” I asked her.
She turned to face me, a weak smile on her face. “I didn’t say a word, hon. Hearing things now?”
Oh, if you only knew.“I heard you say something about the place being infested. What does thatmean?” I looked at both her and Nate. “What is going on?”
They reacted in unison. Their eyes widened, and although they tried to hide it, the shock on their faces was unmistakable.
After fourth period, Claire, Nate, and I walked to the cafeteria, barely talking while they dragged me with them at a steady pace. Claire held on to my arm as if she was afraid it might fall off. What was with all this creepiness? Something up ahead made me look twice. I strained my eyes, trying to determine what I was looking at. Feeling the same sudden wash of horror and dread I had felt on the street last night, I saw a sort of dark shadow at the end of the hall.
It was hard to tell whether there really was anything there, because it sort of glided in and out of view. There were a lot of people around, and it seemed to mix in with the crowd. If it actually was something, it seemed to be hiding behind other students. No one seemed to notice it, though. I raised my hand to point at the thing. I was about to ask Nate if he saw it, too, when he pulled me into a classroom.
There was no time to react. The next thing I knew, I was in a fourth-grade classroom.
“What was that?” I said as I tried to move past Nate and take another peek out into the hall.
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Nate. Why the hell did you pull me in here? And what was that outside?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jade.” He looked behind him and then moved toward the door. Claire opened it and walked in, all chirpy.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go eat!”
Nate shoved his hands into his hip pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels. “Umm, I’ll see you girls later,” he said as he slid her hand into his and gave her one of their silent looks. “I have to go do some stuff off school grounds, but I’ll be here when you get out, okay?” He kissed the back of her hand and disappeared amid the throng of students in the hall.
“What was that all about?” I asked as Claire pulled me forward and we made a short stop at my locker. I couldn’t help but feel that something highly unusual was going on, and for the first time, I had the suspicion that my best friends knew something they didn’t trust me to hear. They seemed to be trying to hide something big under a too-small blanket.
I sat at the lunch table waiting for Claire to get out of the dreadful cafeteria line. As usual, I had brought my own lunch. I wasn’t really hungry anyway, so to pass the time—and, once again, to keep my mind off the strange things I had been seeing—I pulled out my hardcover copy ofTo Kill a Mockingbird. The cafeteria line seemed to be barely moving today, and I was having trouble getting into the book. The clamor and clatter of the cafeteria seemed louder than usual, and that wasn’t helping my concentration any.
Someone sat down across from me. I stiffened, somehow knowing it washim,and put the book down. As usual, my intuition was right. There, across the table from me, sat Avan, chin propped up on his elbows, smiling. He looked around, then put his backpack on the floor beside him.
“You know,” I said, “sitting at this table isextremelybad for your rising reputation.”
“Good thing no one’s watching, then.” He looked around and then stared at me.
Claire set her tray down next to me and sat down. “Seriously dude, sitting here is a death wish,” she said. “You’re buddies with Amy. I would suggest you make her happy and sit with her—she’s already giving us the evil eye, so . . .” She nodded toward Amy’s table.
Avan turned around, trying to be inconspicuous, but Amy caught his eye and waved desperately at him, making sad faces as she patted the wooden bench next to her.
“Seems like she misses you,” Claire said.
I kicked her under the table, and she just looked at me. I couldn’t believe how rude she was being. I turned my attention back to Avan.
“That’s okay,” he said to Claire. “Jade already warned me. I’m really not the kind of person you seem to think I am, but if you’d rather I sat someplace else, it’s okay.” He raised an eyebrow as he looked into my eyes, and then stood up and walked away without saying another word.
I felt terrible. He was being nothing but sweet, and Claire had to run him off. I wanted to talk to him, and I wanted him to sit at our table. Why did she have to act this way? The table he chose was not Amy’s—that made me happy inside, I have to admit. He sat with Nick Frost, who eagerly welcomed his presence.
Amy gave us an exasperated look and walked toward Avan. She put on her best smile and slid her arm around his shoulder. I imagined she would try to have him sit at her table. But when he apparently turned her down, Amy stomped over to our table. If this were a cartoon, there would have been smoke coming out of her ears.
As she approached I felt myself tense up, ready for her to lash out at us. I was tired of this hierarchy that, I supposed, existed in every school, and I couldn’t wait until I was away from Amy, until I could be myself without looking over my shoulder to see who was watching.
Behind Amy, Avan turned his head to the side and briefly looked at me. He seemed hurt, and it made me feel awful. I felt a familiar faint tingling in my back, which progressed slowly into the same burning ache as earlier. She put her hands on our table, right where Avan had sat.
“Do not eventhinkyou’re going to be hanging out with him,” she snarled. “He’s too good for you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. Don’t waste your time, okay? He’s free to hang out with whomever he chooses. And I didn’t ask him to sit with me, all right, Amy?”
I said all this without even deigning to look up at her, then opened up my book and pretended to resume my reading. But I couldn’t concentrate. I wanted to slap her for being so stupid. How dare she tell me who I could or couldn’t hang out with?
Then, to my complete astonishment, she reached over the table and, snatching the book right out of my hand, slammed it down on the table. Every head around us turned to see what was going on.
“Listen here,” she said in a tone dripping with condescension, “you freaks are three of a kind, so don’t go messing with the natural order of life. People like him”—she pointed with her thumb back to where Avan was sitting—“do not belong withyou.”
She punctuated the last word with a glare straight into my eyes, making sure her point was getting across. She didn’t faze me, though. I gave her my best bored-to-death look and hoped she would leave.
“Then again, Nathaniel looks like he could be normal. I’ll never understand what he’s doing here with you two.”
By then, Claire had had it. She stood up, and her face was transformed. This was not the sweet, bubbly Claire anymore. She was giving Amy a real rattlesnake stare.
I could see in Amy’s eyes that the unspoken threat had come through, loud and clear. She retreated quickly to her table and started murmuring to the cheerleaders, who in turn began casting dark looks at us. I spent the rest of the day avoiding the silent vitriol coming from Amy’s clan. It wasn’t as if I had actually done anything, either. It really was amazing how much that girl could influence people and poison their minds against someone else.
As the school day ended, I walked to Claire’s car. She was still talking to Mr. Bennar, our biology teacher, about an assignment that was due in a couple of weeks. Nate was out of sight but probably not far away. I leaned on Claire’s car and started picking at my nail polish. I was seriously overdue for a manicure. I heard someone walking my way and ignored it until a tall shadow slid into view and stopped in front of me.
“Is it bad for my reputation to talk to you now?”
What was it about him that made me so nervous?Without moving my eyes from my nails, I teased, “It’s certainly going to make a dent in it. I already had an earful from your girlfriend. But hey, it’s your own popularity you’re digging a grave for, you know?” I slowly traced my way to his eyes.
“Gee, which of my many girlfriends was that? I just can’t keep count,” he joked back. We were quiet for a moment, and then he took another step closer. “I wanted to apologize about earlier. I don’t know her too well, but she seems to have it in for you.” His thumbs hung casually to the straps of his backpack.
I laughed under my breath. Boy, was he right! “I guess so. I’m sorry about Claire, too—I don’t know what’s gotten into her.”
My anxiety at this point melted away. Avan’s voice made me feel different, as if it spoke to a part of me that I had never known was there. Standing there with his naturally messy hair, he was astoundingly beautiful.He bent down so his face was right in front of mine. I could feel the blood in my veins move faster as my heart thumped harder.
“I’ve been duly warned about my so calledpopularity. Now, since we didn’t get to have lunch today, would you consider it tomorrow?”
I stared into his face, trying to assess the situation. Why was he so intent on hanging out with me? Was this some evil plan Amy was hatching, with him just doing as she said? I didn’t know, and I didn’t much care, either.
“Sure, that’s fine,” I relented, turning my palms up in surrender.
“Perfect. It’s a date,” he said, while making his way past me to his car, which I couldn’t see from where I was standing.
A date?I thought. Was he really considering it a date? What did that even mean?
* * *
Once in the peace and quiet of my own house, it was time for a writing session. I didn’t write often, but now that I was experiencing some kind of high I felt inspired. I had the words flowing into me, and I just wanted to put them down on paper before I forgot them.
Above, a moon feels cold,It’s back turned to a black heaven.But here below, I cannot share its mood.Where all the stars had been,There came a crashing fall.And now, in my heart, I hold all the lights of the sky.Its face is turned in envy of me.I know, the moon looks only into my heart,But my heart is out of reach of the moon’s weak pull.I have another who has gripped my mindAnd, soon, will grip my soul.His eyes are the only ones that will be able to steal my light away.All that I am, pulled deep into his being.I keep these secrets to be seen only by him.When his hand opens, it shall all be given freely.
* * *
It was a beautiful day to be outside, and I was glad Avan led me out of the gloomy, raucous cafeteria and toward a picnic table. The sun was struggling to peek through the white, folding clouds, but it still showed itself enough to warm the air. We sat across from each other and made small talk. I met wondering eyes looking our way, and whispers passing by.
“Hi, Avan!” came the sweet but thoroughly fake voice that I had learned to despise. She was closing the space between us, and as soon as Avan wasn’t looking she gave me theyou are so deadglare.
“Hey, what’s up,” he mumbled, barely looking up at her before returning his eyes to mine.
He didn’t seem to care much for her at the moment, but the memory of the way she touched him at the diner flooded in. My jaw clenched as she lowered herself to whisper something in his ear, softly enough that I didn’t hear it. While still close to his face, she looked at me and smiled. Watching her walk away, I tried to hide the jealousy I felt. After all, I had no claim over him.
“So, you guys don’t get along much, huh?” Avan said with a grin as he squeezed every last drip of ketchup from the packet.
“No, but that’s just Amy.” I took a packet of ketchup for myself. “Since you’re a good-looking guy, she’ll be your best friend. But for the rest of us, she’s just a huge pain in the ass. Goes into a real simmer when I don’t let her get to me, too.”Oh my God, did I just admit that I think he’s good looking?
I smiled at him and noticed the odd way he was looking at me.
“What,what?” he repeated, shaking his head and smiling.
“Um, you were kinda staring.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. It’s just . . .”
I waited for him to continue, but he changed the subject instead. “So, are you coming to her party Friday?”
“Oh, no. Busy this weekend.” It was a big, fat lie. I was never busy on the weekends, but I wasn’t about to crash the party of my archenemy.
“That sucks. It would have been nice to have someone to talk to about something other than gossip.” He rolled his eyes.
I looked in the direction Amy had disappeared, wondering how bad it would be if I showed up. Amy and I had been really good friends all throughout middle school, but when freshmen year came around she never once spoke to me again—well, unless she had something snarky to say. It did make me a little uneasy that Avan would be going to her party, especially since there was sure to be alcohol and slutty attires. That two-faced sneak always got what she wanted.
Behind the iron gates, a figure moved. It was far away, but I saw the unmistakable green of his eyes. I gasped. It couldn’t be! With a simple blink, he was gone. Hearing things, seeing things—what was the matter with me? He wasn’t real, just a figment of my half-addled imagination. He was just a dream.
I lowered my gaze to my food. There was something going on, but what, exactly? I looked up at Avan and felt as if every fiber in meknewhim. Something deep inside me recognized him. But what about the stranger with the green eyes? Something about him called to me.
You’re ridiculous,I told myself.
When lunch was almost over he piled everything onto his tray, and I watched as he walked away. The way he moved with perfect ease, the way his skin seemed to glow in the sunlight, I found myself longing for him. My insides told me to get up and kiss him right on the mouth, to show him exactly how he made me feel. But, of course, that was insane. I was not one to take risks of that magnitude. Besides, what if he didn’t return the feeling?
* * *
The days went by, and our lunches alone together got more frequent. Soon, Claire and Nate had to accept that Avan was becoming a part of the group whether they liked it or not. The next thing I knew, all four of us were hanging out after school; meeting at the local bookstore for history research, going on movie outings, the first double dates that I actually enjoyed, the game nights at home, and the occasional high school party.
Mike Johnson, one of the cutest guys in school, threw a party after the Brushwood Angels’ football victory against the Pirates. Avan asked me to go with him, since his novelty and his charismatic personality seemed to make him friends with the whole school. It had been the first time I got asked to a party, especially by a boy, so I was onboard. But anytime we happened to see Amy, she shamelessly tried to find a way to bribe Avan away from my side. When that didn’t work, she would throw herself all over him, shaking her skimpy outfits in front of him in a none-too-subtle attempt to seduce him.
I had grown tired of it, and to my relief so had Avan. From then on, we spent our weekends at the bowling alley or the coffee shop in town. As soon as Amy realized he was unattainable, she turned the heat on me. I was used to her ridiculously mean comments, but I still felt embarrassed when Avan heard them. I certainly didn’t want him to think any less of me.
As the relationship between Avan and me kept growing stronger, so did my feelings for him. Two months had gone by, and I could not really explain how, but I felt my whole being becoming defined by his, as if my mind and body were finding a new purpose for existing. Was this how first love felt? I wasn’t sure, but I knew for certain I was growing up, and fast.
The greatest confirmation of this change came during one of our few private outings to the movies without Claire and Nate chaperoning us. We were watchingThe Last Exorcism,which was totally scary and wonderfully romantic, too. I am the only one unaffected by scary movies, but this one’s special effects had me continually burying my face in his shoulder. He didn’t seem to mind—he even moved the armrest back and pulled me in closer. Feeling his body pressed so close to mine sent that strange energy cascading through me. The sensation was absolutely glorious.
I could feel his heart hammering as hard as mine. He seemed as nervous as I was. At this point, I was so aware of our bodies pressing together that the movie was merely background noise. It had been two months of flirting and holding hands. It was time for something more. I wanted something more. Just as I thought that, his shakily free hand pulled my chin up to face those eyes shining down at me. Something in that gaze never failed to take my breath away. He leaned down toward me, and I instinctively closed my eyes. I wasn’t sure what to do, and so I momentarily held my place, but then my face rose to meet his.
The first kiss was short and tender, but the contact between our lips unleashed me. There had been no blinding light, but the same sense of shock rippled through me. He registered his awareness of my yearning, and I felt his body tense slightly. He paused, wanting to look into my eyes, and when he did, the invitation for more unleashed his passion, too. His warm lips moved again toward me. As if buried beneath the layers of each touch, each soft lick, each movement, speaking of what words couldn’t, each new sensation brought new unspoken responses. We moved in unison. His mouth pulled in my lower lip, and as my jaw relaxed, I tasted the sweetness of his tongue.
Our lips parted, but we remained locked in the awareness of each other’s breathing. Frozen time seemed to melt and flow once again. He faced me with a smile that began slowly on one side of his mouth and remained there. The kiss could have lasted forever. Hell, I wanted it to last forever, but I pretended to get interested in the movie again, howevermy mind was in a different dimension. The pervading warmth radiating from where our bodies touched was only getting stronger. The electric current between us was palpable. This couldn’t be ignored any longer. There was literally a physical process happening between us. I had to talk to him, but for now I just wanted to enjoy his nearness—and, hopefully, a few more of those kisses.
5 MIDNIGHT STALKER
The weekend went fast, and Monday rolled around. I woke up, excited that I would finally be seeing Avan again. My flirtatious mood had incited me to add purple highlights to my hair.
Since I seemed to be the only senior without a car, Avan had offered to take over the task of chauffeuring me to school whenever Claire didn’t sleep over. When I heard him pull up in the driveway my heart missed a few beats. I hadn’t seen him after our movie date and was nervous about how he would be today.
His engine idled a moment; then I heard the sound of the car door closing. I walked briskly over to the front door and held it open for him. As I took in the vision of him walking toward me, I was amazed to realize thathewas interested inme. His crooked smile showed up the second he saw me standing there. He was wearing washed-out black jeans, a white long-sleeved T-shirt, and a black leather jacket. So . . .dangerous!
He was also wearing a loose beanie cap that let a few strands of dark hair peek out. When he reached me, he put his arm around my waist and pulled me in for a short but tender kiss. Just as on Friday night, I felt myself get lost in the sensation it brought. As corny as it sounds, whenever we were together, especially if we touched physically in any kind of way, sparks began to fly.
We walked toward the kitchen, where Mom was having her morning coffee, and I picked up my backpack.
“Good morning, Avan,” she said politely.
“Good morning, Mrs. Lovecraft. How was your weekend?” He took the bar stool next to her.
Mom knew what he meant to me—after all, I had spent all weekend talking about pretty much nothing else. Luckily, since my parents had met him before, I had gotten their approval. Avan and Mom made small talk while I grabbed two orange juice bottles from the refrigerator, and a bagel from the breadbox. I gave Mom a kiss and led Avan outside.
He drove a sweet 1969 Mustang convertible. He said his mother had bought it off an old man in their neighborhood for pennies. I truly doubted that. The car was in mint condition. The paint was still shiny, and the white top was in perfect condition. The seats were white leather with red seams. And he kept a couple of Black Ice air fresheners under the seats, which made the car smell wonderful. As we were pulling out of the driveway I asked him about his weekend.
“It may not seem very manly to admit, but I was thinking aboutyouall weekend.”
Manly or not, I loved hearing that. “And what were you thinking about?” I asked as I cocked my head to the side.
He picked up my hand and kissed the back of it, and I felt myself start to blush. He stopped the car and pulled me closer to him. He leaned in, stopping just short of my lips.
“This . . .”
His warm breath merged with mine. He closed the space between us, and the whole world became the sweet taste of his kiss. It felt like the Fourth of July in my head. He sat back and focused on the road again.
“I’ve missed you, Jade.”
My heart was doing back flips at this point. We drove in silence for a moment, my hand still in his. I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to talk to him about what I felt every time we touched. I decided to tackle the issue right here and now. Cold sweat found its way to the palms of my hands and I let go of his.
“I have a question for you.”
“Shoot,” he said.
There was that crooked grin. I tried to sound calm. Though my insides were twisting, I had no idea how I would feel if he didn’t understand what I was about to say.
He made a stop at the intersection and then turned left. One more block before we were at school.
“It’s going to sound totally weird, but I just have to ask . . . Ever since the first time we met and our hands touched, well, it’s as if, every time we touch, there’s this current of energy that flows from you to me and back to you again. I was just wondering . . .”
I felt stupid hearing myself say this. He would think I was insane and never talk to me again, but the squeeze on my hand felt like an act of reassurance. I looked at him.
“You know, Jade, that’s something I’ve been trying to figure out how to ask you, too,” he said. “I think I know what you mean.” He stole a quick look my way and gave me a look of understanding.
“I will admit that at first it was weird. I’ve never felt that before, but then it got more natural and started to feel like every time we touch, we become one. Somehow, we’re connected. Itfeelsright now.”
That was all it took to reassure myself of just how deeply in love I was with him. I stared at him for a moment, wanting to capture this feeling forever—just bottle it up and keep it with me always.
I spent the rest of the short drive to school telling him about my weekend and how we were going to decorate the house for Halloween, not making mention that it was also my birthday. He offered to come over and help, but I told him it was Mom’s job. She never let anyone help with the decorations—not even me.
We parked in a space far from the school’s main entrance, and hearing the first bell go off, we started running.
* * *
It was past seven on Thursday night when I remembered our biology exam the next day. Once everyone had gone home with their costumes in hand, I decided it was time to review. If there was one subject I didn’t care much for, this was it. But for as long as I could remember, I already knew everything I was taught—things I had never heard about yet knew all the details to. I didn’t need to study, but it was something I had grown accustomed to anyway. It has always worried me a little, the way things come to me with ease.
I sat at the desk with my blank index cards, a pen, and the thick, oppressively heavy biology textbook. When my eyes began to close I looked over at the clock on the nightstand near my bed. Time had flown by. It was almost midnight. I had studied enough for one session. I got ready for bed and went to close the curtains. As I was closing them, I noticed two strange green dots hovering in the darkness, out near the driveway. It took me a minute to realize what I had seen. Slowly opening the curtains again, I stared a little longer until my eyes adjusted to the dark, and then I saw it clearly. Sitting perfectly still and looking straight toward my window—and, seemingly, into my eyes—was a black panther.
Panthers come and go. We had seen them before, but never a black one, and never behaving this way. A strange fear crept into me, and the hair on the back of my neck rose. The creaturewouldn’t move. I wasn’t afraid of it hurting me, since I was inside and there was no way it could get to me. The true fright came from how unnatural it looked, sitting there on a suburban front lawn.
An unpleasant surge, fanned by my fear, suddenly broke into my mind, and the familiar voice in my head warned me once again: “Theki-sikil-lil-la-keknows about you.”
“Who?” I whispered.
The voice made me tremble. “I don’t know what that is.”
“You must prepare. She will come for you.”
The warnings were beginning to scare me. Especially since there had been many instances lately when I thought I felt a presence nearby, following me. The strangest feeling knotted in the pit of my stomach, as if something were terribly wrong. I kept expecting the warnings to come true, to see something horrible or hear very bad news. This was the first time I actually saw something strange, but a panther could not be what the warning was about . . . could it?
What could all this mean? Was someone after me? Or was I simply going crazy—losing my hold on reality? The voices started coming shortly before I met Avan. Were they about him? I didn’t allow my thoughts to go any further with that bizarre idea. For once, I had something that meant something to me. Besides, the voice always spoke of a “she.”
No, it had nothing to do with Avan. If that were the case, the voices would start yelling at me every time I was with him, but instead I had only felt a sense of tranquility and calm when I was around him. I kept my eyes away from the curtains and lay in bed, staring at the ceiling for some time until sleep won the battle.
6 THE HUNT
A hint of a new presence had been in the air lately. I have always been able to sense the slightest disturbance—any indication of another being like myself. I was suspicious of another power being unleashed. This could only bode ill. I assumed that the beacon came from an enemy.
The hunt had begun, and as with all my schemes, I would use the utmost secrecy and care. I had to know the nature and intent of this unknown creature. Following the scent, I came nearer and nearer until I found the source.
I had planned to send a spy ahead. The panther was pure happenstance—it happened to be nearby when I needed something to control. A bear or red wolf would have suited just as well. I ordered it to prowl around the house for a few days, and eventually it brought back mental images of the family. A dark-haired girl lived there. Something more lay within than appeared on the surface. Her eyes were a clear giveaway. Maybe not to an unthinking mortal, but for us it was unquestionable. Time was all I needed.
In fact, the mysteries deepened, and the peril I found myself in was worse than I could have imagined. There, in the unreasoning animal mind of the panther, I also found a memory of two faces Iknewwell: one set of gray eyes, of the doubled and mirrored, of a pair always together, golden haired and divine—an enemy to be feared. These were not the sources of the unbridled beacon, though. These two knew how to control their true nature.
While the panther gathered the information needed, I plotted. All possible means of having a direct encounter with the girl were too risky. The gray-eyed menace seemed to be always present, and even when not visibly around, it was still too dangerous for me to gamble on its staying away and not returning at an inopportune moment.
One day, a change of events led to an opening, a chance for me to act. The girl was given a conveyance to use, and left for school on her own for the very first time. The greatest chance to succeed in confronting her was for her to return alone later. The decision was made. The only people around were her mother and father: the perfect bait.
During midday of the girl’s birthday, with an unrestrained power and an intent that I alone could have given it, the panther broke through the unlocked French doors into the living room, where it scattered Halloween decorations about. I remained hidden in the trees while the animal did as it was commanded to.
I entered and walked across the room, neither giving a second glance to the carnage below nor caring. I knelt and stroked the sleeping cat. And there I stayed until she came home.
My dad’s deep voice reached into my dreams. “Good morning, princess!” he said, stroking the hair out of my face and kissing my forehead.
“Thanks, Dad.” My morning voice sounded thin and a little gravelly, but remembering it was my birthday made me jump up in bed. As I staggered onto my feet I gave him a tight hug, letting myself get lost in his scent of Axe deodorant and aftershave. I looked up at him. “How come you’re not at work?”
“It’s my little girl’s birthday—how could I miss that? Come on, kiddo, get dressed and come downstairs—breakfast is ready,” he said as he walked out of my room.
“I love you, Dad!” I called after him.
Mom had bought me some new outfits a couple of days ago, but I couldn’t touch anything until today. I slipped into the new Ramones white shirt with the black long sleeves, the new jeans, and black boots. Then I gave the front of my hair some loose curls, adding some volume so it wouldn’t just hang lank, and went downstairs.
Mom was at the stove, flipping pancakes. The smell of bacon made my stomach growl like a hungry house cat. For as long as I could remember, this had been my “birthday breakfast of champions.” I wrapped my arm around Mom’s shoulders and gave her a kiss, then headed for my stool at the island, next to Dad.
“Happy birthday, honey,” she said, greeting me out of the corner of her eye. “I see you couldn’t keep your hands off your new clothes.”
“Hah!” I said. “It was torture not getting to wear them before now!”
Minutes after she brought us our breakfast, I had inhaled mine. Taking the plate to the sink, I looked over at the clock that hung above the refrigerator. “Claire was supposed to pick me up . . .”
“Oh, she called earlier,” Mom said. “Something came up and she can’t make it. But anyway, your dad and I’ve been talking, and . . .” She had that crooked grin that made her look like a kid herself. “You can have Dad’s pickup truck.”
I gaped at them both in disbelief. “You’re really giving me the truck?” I squealed. “It’smine?”
Dad held up his hands and said, “It’s old, and we figured, how much damage could you do?” He paused, grinning. “Maybe I’d better reword that—forgot who I was talking to.” He was attached to that old beater. He had taken Mom on their first date in it, way back when you could tell what color it was. But he needn’t worry—I would treat it like a family heirloom.
I rushed outside and rolled down the windows. I shouldn’t be this excited about a three-block drive, but itwaspretty cool. With the windows down, I let the rock-and-roll station blast, driving slowly because I didn’t want to get there too quickly.Hallelujah—I wasn’t Miss Daisy anymore!
Avan was waiting next to his car, motioning for me to take the empty space he seemed to have been saving for me. Once I shut off the engine, he walked around and waited for me to get out. His smoldering blue eyes were making me weak as his fingertips on the small of my back pulled me closer to him. The moment our bodies touched, I felt that inexplicable current of energy. He moved his free hand onto my cheek and kissed me. It was the subtlest kiss I ever experienced, but with a triple charge of passion. “Happy birthday, babe,” he said, low enough that only I could hear him.
“Thanks,” I said, a little out of breath. Avan put his arm around my shoulders as we walked toward the school doors. This was already a promising day!
* * *
As I approached my locker I heard Claire and Nate shout in unison, “Happy birthday!” Scattered students turned toward the commotion, and I hurried forward. They had really gone all out. Balloons in all sizes and colors floated in front of my battered locker door, making it nearly impossible to get my combination right.
“Thanks, you guys,” I said. I pulled them in for a tight hug. I loved my best friends. “You didn’t need to make such a big fuss about it, though.” I indicated all the eyes still looking at us. I tried opening the locker again, and this time the steel door creaked open.
“Oh, yeah, I forgot—Jade doesn’t want anyone noticing she exists!” Claire joked, leaning against her locker. “Watch out—someone may want to talk to you.” She opened her book bag and pulled out a black bag and handed it to me. “Happy birthday, dork.”
“You really didn’t need—Oh, my God, MAC makeup?” I shrieked as I looked inside. “You are awesome. I cannot believe it!”
And I really couldn’t. The bag was seriously packed with eye shadows and eyeliners in every color—powders and mascara enough for the whole cheerleading squad, and brushes for every technique available.
“This is too much, Claire.” I lowered my voice.
“It’s nothing,” she said, waving me off. “This way you can do your whole corpse bride makeup for tonight.”
Tonight. My birthday party. My birthday had been declared October 31, the day Mom found me wandering in the woods behind the house. I must have been about five years old and had no recollection why I was there or where I had come from. It was as if all memories had been wiped from my head. The only thing certain was my name: Jade.
After I had spent most of the night at the Hollow Falls Police Department, they had at last endured enough of Mom’s pleading and let her take me home so I could rest. Days passed, then weeks, but nobody ever came to claim me. No local, county, or statewide search turned up any clue to where I may have come from. Eventually, months went by, with dozens of visits from the Children and Family Services Department, and still no one claimed me. I say it as if I were some kind of lost package, and in a way, I was.
So in commemoration, every year I got to throw a birthday Halloween bash, which meant loads of makeup, crazy costumes, and even crazier decorations. If there was one thing Mom could do, it was to throw a wicked party.
I had spent the past few days looking for the needed decorations. Each new item gave Mom a new idea of what we would do in the house. There were a few tombstones for the front lawn, and some creepy-looking low picket fences to be set up as if marking a cemetery. We got orange pumpkin lights and a fog machine to make the house look eerie. A few fake body parts would be spread throughout the house, mainly around the table and next to the food. A big Grim Reaper, complete with threadbare robe and rusted scythe, would be set up in a corner of the living room. I couldn’t wait to see it all decked out.
“Did you get your costumes already?” I asked Nate and Claire as I shoved my amazing present into the narrow locker.
“Yeah, we got them last night. I had to make a few arrangements, but they’re ready for tonight. Ah!” she squealed. “I’m so excited!”
Avan and I had decided to be the characters of one of our favorite movies,The Nightmare before Christmas. He was Jack; I was Sally.
The rest of the day went by without mishaps. In fact, a lot more people I had anticipated approached me to tell me how excited they were about the party. Everyone knew my Mom’s amazing party skills.
I didn’t want to go home right away after school, and so I drove around for a while. The windows down and the cool air making my hair flutter all over my head. It was when I came to the corner of Mills Boulevard and Richmond Road that I saw him, the boy from my dreams. He entered a dark alley behind the McDonald’s. It couldn’t be, he wasn’t real just a figment of my imagination.
I drove by slowly, looking deep into the alley, but he wasn’t there. Only the large garbage bins against the buildings. Why did this keep happening? I sighed and decided to forget all about it. I would go home and start getting ready for tonight. My nerves lessened only a little bit as excitement overcame me.
* * *
I grabbed the makeup bag from the front seat and fumbled in my purse for my keys. With them in hand, I walked up the four steps to the wraparound porch and unlocked the door. Mom must be running behind, because there were no decorations outside. Still looking down at my purse, I closed the door behind me. Then I looked up and gasped.
Mom had really done a fantastic job decorating inside. All the pumpkin lights were strung up around the threshold, and the Grim Reaper’s robe was billowing in the breeze from a small fan underneath. That must have been Dad’s idea—he was always clever that way. The snack table was set up with all the fake body parts and food made to look like guts and slimy things. I was a bit surprised that it was so quiet, though—they were probably waiting somewhere to jump out and scare me. They always got into a festive mood for my Halloween birthday party.
Then, amid the orange crepe paper decorations in the far corners of the living room, I noticed something strange. By the fireplace, standing stock-still, was a red-haired woman with a black panther beside her. My stomach made a back flip at the sight of the animal. It did lookjustlike the one I had seen below my window.
I shook off the feeling that took over me.Mom must have hired entertainment,I thought. A smile started to form on my lips. How cool! I took a few steps forward, my eyes on the panther. It wasn’t on a leash, which I thought strange—even maybe a little dangerous.
The woman looked at me without saying a word, as if studying my every move. I looked around to see horrible red stains all over the walls and furniture. Just as quickly as I had noticed the stains, my heart sank to the bottom of the deepest sea.
I finally realized why it was so quiet.
Dad was lying on the couch, his clothes soaked in blood. His neck was torn apart. Was this a costume? It looked too real. My breathing started to fail me, and my head started to spin. Then I noticed Mom, crumpled face down on the floor, also bloodied. She was not in a natural position.
I couldn’t speak. My knees went numb, and the tears blinded me.
It couldn’t be . . . My parents were dead.
I felt my heart and mind shatter. I looked through my tears at the woman and let out a little moan. She looked at me with the most unnatural I smile I had ever seen. I took a step forward, ready to rip her to shreds.
Her finger tapped the panther, and in response it bared its teeth and moved toward me. It had been crouched about twenty feet away, but it was across the room in an instant, close enough for me to reach out and touch, its long, yellowed canine teeth bared.
Was I going to die, too?
The question came to me clear as day. All my numbness and horror vanished, replaced in that instant by a desire to escape, to survive. I bolted toward the kitchen and slammed through the back screen door. I heard it break off its hinges. I could hear the panther’s claws scrape wood as it followed me across the back deck. I jumped clear of the steps and fell on my landing. Frantic, I rolled up to my feet and sprinted to the edge of the woods.
And there I stopped. Everything I had just witnessed filled my mind to the brim. There was no way to withstand it, and I began screaming. The scream turned into a wail like the siren on a fire engine. The panther came to an abrupt halt in front of me, and just as suddenly, I saw the woman appear beside it. The wailing sound I was making grew louder and louder. I didn’t even draw in a breath—just somehow continued to bellow in unfettered rage and anguish. My ears were hurting, and I felt as if my whole body were on fire. But my back felt as if it was being pricked by thorns.
At that point, everything began to feel like a dream. Perhaps I imagined it, but from the forest, a flock of ravens appeared in a great cloud—thousands of birds. They swooped down around me and attacked the panther. Bird after bird hit with such force that each impact made a loud thud. A few birds fell dead, their necks broken from the force of their attack. The panther leaped and swatted a few times before fleeing, defeated by the birds’ vicious assault.
The woman looked at me. Her face was horrifying. There was something in her deep obsidian eyes that made me feel as if she was here for nothing else but to kill me.
“Ki-sikil-lil-la-ke,”came the voice in my head.
The woman was pale with rage.
“Ki-sikil-lil-la-ke,” it called again with greater urgency.
Looking at the woman, I was frozen. Somehow, Iknewthat she wanted me dead, and IknewI needed to run. But I couldn’t.
She took a step forward, and all hesitation vanished. I moved through the forest with a single-minded fury that left me without another thought. I could sense the woman behind me. Everything was moving past so quickly, I could barely see where I was going. I could hardly catch my breath, and my clothes felt tight. The collar of my shirt constricted my neck.
After running headlong for what felt like an eternity, I came to the dirt trail leading to the forest’s outer edge. I knew that just beyond it was the cliff. This was a dead end. I had run in the wrong direction.
Hearing the rapid footfalls of the woman running behind me, I ran a few steps more, then stopped right at the edge of the cliff. In an instant of terror, the most tremendous pain I had ever felt in my life came over me. It was as if someone had shot a bullet into my right shoulder. I lost my balance and fell over the edge.
The woman’s eyes looked down at me in surprise. She raised her hand, and in it was something small and white. All around me the darkness pulled at me, and I grew lost in it.
“Jade? Jade, are you all right?” I opened my eyes, and even with my blurry vision I could distinguish Claire’s face. “Nate, call nine one one.” She slipped her hands underneath me, and with incredible strength I didn’t think plausible she picked me up, and carried me into the warmth of her house.
8 ON MY WAY
I heard the door crack open, allowing a narrow shaft of light in behind it. Claire silently made her way over to the bed and knelt on the floor. I could feel her gaze on me. She hovered a few moments, probably making sure I was still breathing. I didn’t know how long I had been lying in this bed in the dark, and thinking about it only made me breathe in shorter gasps. Her warm, soft hand found my shoulder.
“We’re right outside if you need us,” she whispered, tenderly kissing my forehead before moving away and leaving the room.
I wasn’t ready.
I closed my eyes and let the tears roll once again. Claire’s explanation of what had happened—how my parents had been killed by an animal—came back into my mind. The pain grew, enveloping me, stabbing me like a thousand daggers. But my sorrow, instead of bleeding out, grew inside me.
The sobs came louder each time. No matter how much I tried to muffle them, they kept coming louder and louder. I breathed in and out, trying to calm myself down. I screamed into my pillow, wondering if she would come in and check on me once again, and threw a few halfhearted punches into the mattress. I couldn’t bear the thought of opening my eyes just yet. Couldn’t face the reality of what my life had become.
I was left all alone in the world. My life had been ripped right out of my hands, with no way of turning back the time. I could not face the fact that I wouldneversee them again, feel their arms around me, or even hear their voices calling my name. How was I supposed to keep going?
Once I had let out some of the pain I rolled onto my side, pulled my knees up, and wrapped my arms around them. The pain was unbearable, paralyzing. This was all I amounted to: a broken heart, a broken soul. I felt my own essence dissipating and drifting further and further away. I kept my arms around my body, trying to hold myself together. The darkness that hung in the room had somehow sucked the remaining life out of me.
Would it ever stop? Would it ever get better?
It wouldn’t. This much I knew.
I don’t know how long I cried before I drifted into a light sleep in which I was not awake, yet still conscious of my surroundings. All I heard was the TV in Claire’s living room. It was just a slight humming in the background but always there, keeping me company. Claire came in periodically, leaving a tray of food that sat untouched until she came back to pick it up and replace it with a fresh one.
The doorknob twisted, and I hugged the pillow. I waited for the door to open, for someone to come in, but instead the knob went back to its normal position. “She’s sleeping,” I heard Claire say.
“I need to see her.”
It washisvoice. It did something to me, temporarily lifting the darkness that had fallen over me. “I have to be with her.”
“I know that, but she isn’t ready,” Claire said. “Not yet.” There was silence, and I wanted to scream for him to come in, to hold me in his arms and never let me go. I had fallen into a monotonic numbness and despair and needed to feelsomething.
“Just tell her I was here. If she wants me, I’ll come anytime.”
* * *
Again I woke up. I gradually sat up in the bed and leaned against the wall. Its coldness sent shivers through my body, cooling and awakening me. I let my eyes adjust to the darkness that enveloped the room. It was nothing like the darkness that pervaded me inside. My eyes finally attuned to the night, and I saw the half-open door leading to the small guest bathroom. I needed to get up. I had been in this bed, wearing this same nightgown, for who knew how long.
My big camo duffel bag was on the floor near the sliding closet doors, which, I assumed, would be filled with some of my clothes. I let my mind wander within these four walls, but it wouldn’t be long before, of its own accord, it began wandering to darker memories.
I pushed forward and set my feet on the cold floor. Wobbling a little until I regained my balance, I took the few steps to the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror, looking at my dim reflection in the dark. I turned the water on and washed the dry tears off my cheeks. Luckily, my best friend was on top of everything and had already unpacked my toiletries.
A quick search of the room didn’t turn up my cell phone. Quietly, I opened the door to the hallway that connected every room in the house. I turned right and headed for the kitchen, hoping that a snack would make me feel better as I looked for my phone.
The big wooden bowl on the counter was filled with pears and apples and tangerines. I looked around for something sweeter but came up empty. I picked up a banana, and as I peeled it I found my brown leather purse on the opposite side of the counter. I turned the microwave night light on and, under its weak light, unzipped my purse. My wallet, keys, and watch were all accounted for, and after further patting down, I felt the phone in the small pocket in the back. I took it out and pressed the main button, prompting a picture of Mom, Dad, and me lounging on the deck at home.
My vision grew blurry as the tears gathered in my eyes. I unlocked the phone and looked at the date: November 4. I went through the eighteen missed calls: some from kids at school, others, more recently, from good friends of Mom and Dad, most likely giving their condolences. I deleted all voice mails without listening to them. The sobs came naturally. With the phone clutched to my chest, I headed back to bed.
I let myself have a good but silent cry and promised myself I would get out of bed when morning came. But my strength dissipated, and my mind, let loose, busied itself with memories of happier days, interspersed with glimpsed images of their lifeless bodies. I closed my eyes tighter, hoping I could unplug whatever was creating the images. But it was no use. With that last picture in my mind, I once again fell asleep.
This time, my subconscious terror kept bringing its own set of images for me, stealing away the peace of my dreams.
I was walking on a field of lavender flowers, caressing my knees as I walked through it. Its sweet aromatic fragrance evoked a feeling of calm and tranquility. The sky was a pure, vibrant blue, and the sun shone bright without a cloud in sight. I could hear the chirping of finches and robins, though I didn’t see them. The distance was filled with green mountain pastures, with a tree here and there creating some shade. In the foreground, a woman stood gazing at her reflection in a pond. Her long hair swayed in the playful breeze. As I got closer to take a better look, I could see snakes all around her; slithering up her legs and entwining themselves around her body. My stomach felt heavy. The air grew colder, and the images in front of me disturbed me greatly.
“Gross,” I mumbled to myself. On the other side of the pond, a light shone bright and came down from the heavens. Touching the ground, it revealed itself as Claire. My instinct would have been to run to her, but something inside me told me to stay where I was. Hidden. It wasn’t safe out there, and whatever was about to happen, I would want to see. The woman with the serpents around her spoke first. Her voice was serene.
“You will not be able to save her, just as you could not save your mate.” She paused a moment and then continued. “Shemer, wasn’t it?”
Even from afar, I could see Claire’s eyes squint as she made fists with her hands. “I don’t see anyone that needs saving other than you,” she said, and she started to make her way around the pond, toward the other woman. “I suggest you leave now, Lilith, before things end badly for you.”
The serpents disappeared, and now a panther stood in their place.
“Really?” Claire said, and laughed. “Is that supposed to scare me? Do you forget who I am?” Her laughter echoed all around me.
The woman didn’t say a word, just patted the fierce cat, which nagged at a memory I could not quite place. Where had I seen this before?
“Come on, Lilith. If you’re going to fight, then fight!” Claire’s voice roared.
“You have been socializing on the mortal plane far too long, cherub. I wonder if you even rememberhowto fight.”
And just as she said that, the panther sprang at Claire with bewildering speed. Only it wasn’t my Claire anymore. In an eyeblink, wings emerged from behind her, and suddenly, she was a lion. The panther kept coming at her, but it was no match for her. As it grew closer, Claire in lion form rose on its hind legs and jumped onto the panther with its huge, taloned front paws. The panther went down, and Claire the lion went for its throat. The panther gave a muffled yowl, kicked, and fell still.
Claire became herself again, though her wings remained. “Still up for it, Lilith?” she said.
And just like that, Lilith was gone, swallowed in the air.
I started toward her, but before she could see me she flapped her long wings and rose back up into the sky. I walked to the pond, looking around for any sign of anyone at all, and then I saw it. In the pond, under the water, I could see myself, sleeping. Or, if I could be so lucky, maybe I was dead.
I wandered about, and my surroundings changed once again. This time I found myself in a lonely cemetery. Dark and leaning gravestones cast shadows that seemed to move and follow me.
I found him by the big banyan tree, resting against its trunk. I was alone with him in a cemetery, with shadows that danced on their own, moving as if taunting me. I stared at him for a good while. He didn’t seem to notice that I was there.
“Who are you?” I tried to sound tough but failed miserably. My voice creaked, and I looked at my feet to hide my reddening face.
“Someone to steer you away from trouble,”he whispered as he closed the space between us. I looked up at him. Seeing his face clearly for the very first time, his mouth just inches away from mine, I immediately forgot how to breathe. I just stared at his tender, full lips, wondering what they would feel like on mine. He chuckled and backed away from me, finally letting me remember to breathe. I examined the rest of his face. His features were soft and his skin pale. He was utterly gorgeous. His green eyes glistened as he looked at me.
“Why am I in trouble?” Ihated that he had moved away, for I felt as if my whole being was seeking him, longing for him to draw closer again.
“There are some people whom it is better to stay away from,” he said, his face turning grim, and he looked away.
“I’m sorry, but this is a dream—”
“You really think so?”Within the blink of an eye, he was beside me again. He took my hand, and I reveled in every second of his touch.“You do remember me, don’t you?”His hand slid onto my cheeks, lifting my face to his.
I nodded.“You have been in my dreams before.”I couldn’t tear my eyes from his. It felt as if he held me at his will.
“It is no dream,” he said. “It’s a different dimension—another realm, if you wish.”
Okay, pretty boy has lost it. I knew this dream was too good to be true. I pulled my arm away, even though I didn’t want to. I wanted to feel his touch, the electricity that he radiated when he was near. I turned around to look at him, but to my dismay, he was gone. I tried to find my way out of the cemetery but finally gave up, willing myself to wake up from this now miserable dream.
* * *
The knocking on the door pulled me out of the strange dream. As symbolic as it had been, it had seemed thoroughly real. And as for Lilith, she seemed so familiar. I kept searching through my mind and memories for just where I knew the woman from, but once again Claire pulled me back to real life. I sighed at the memory of the stranger and the way he had made me feel.
“Jade?” Claire called from behind the door. “It’s time to start getting ready. Is there anything special you’d like for breakfast?”
Ooh, right. The funeral.“No.”
I pulled the covers over my head. I needed it all to be over. I had to get through today, and then it would be done. Life as I knew it—gone.
“We need to leave in an hour and a half, hon,” Claire said before I heard her walk away.
What had I ever done to deserve such an amazing friend as she, I had no clue, but I was infinitely thankful. I could not have dealt with everything that the tragedy brought. She had written and sent the invitations for the wake and funeral to Mom and Dad’s friends, colleagues, some far-flung family members we hadn’t talked to in a while, and some kids from school. She had also hired a caterer, hired some professionals to clean the house, and bought me a brand-new black dress. It was a lot for any teenager to pull off, but she did it.
I didn’t want to get up, especially when that meant saying good-bye to the two people who meant the world to me. I wished I could lie here forever and just let the darkness that danced around me engulf me and take me away. I could already feel it growing inside me, deep in my core. All the things that once made me happy, made mehuman,were distant memories. My life was now ripped apart.
I got up and stumbled to the small bathroom. I opened the sliding shower door and turned the water on. After playing with the handles for a bit, I got the temperature just right and slid out of my ill-smelling clothes. Once the water started to turn cold, I dried off and went to the duffel bag. Claire knew me well. All my favorite clothes were here. Eventually, a time would come when I would feel normal again. (Or would I?) I dug deep into the bag until I felt my worn-out black Converse high-tops and pulled them out. This, along with the dress, was my mourning attire, a front-row view into my inner depths. It had been five days since “the accident,” and the darkness grew each day with the numbing feeling that accompanied it.
I walked out to the kitchen, where the brightness of the outside world blinded me. I had cocooned myself in the darkness in Nate’s spare bedroom for long enough. Sitting down at the small table, I hid my face in my hands. Claire glanced my way and quickly handed me my black Ray-Ban Wayfarers. With my eyes still closed, I slid them on.
“Thanks.” I mumbled under my breath.
I could now see Claire standing next to the stove, her back toward me. Her bright pink pajama top, which I once would have loved, made me want to vomit. It was just too bright, too happy, for my mood right now. Moving about with her usual grace, she worked on what smelled like pancakes. Nate’s kitchen was small but homey, with cherry cabinets and white marble countertops. A white microwave hung from the cabinet above the white stove they never used. I had been here only a few times and had yet to meet Nate’s parents. They were always off on a business trip or long vacation somewhere halfway around the world. I had always felt bad for Nate because he was always alone. Now I was just like him, except that my parents were never coming back.
Without turning again to look at me, Claire started her usual chatter, this time about what was happening at school. I hadn’t taken the time to realize that while I had been holing up in the guest bedroom, life kept rolling right along for everyone else.
“Are you okay?” Her voice was soft and all too motherly. I lifted my gaze from my hands, where I had been picking at my chipped nail polish, to her face, and saw her expression of concern switch to one ofyour parents just died; of course you’re not okay.I dismissed the question with a faint nod. She mumbled something unintelligible and then walked over with a plate full of all my favorite things: pancakes, bacon, biscuits, and a tall glass of orange juice with three ice cubes. I was automatically reminded of my birthday morning, when Mom made us my special breakfast. Not wiping away the solitary tear that rolled down my cheek, I felt the cooling trace of its passage.
“I’m sorry, Jade.” She sat down beside me and slid her arm over my shoulders, making our temples touch lightly. “Just know that I understand, and, well . . .” She was silent for a moment. “. . . I’ve been there myself. You don’t have to hold back around me, or even Nate. You know that, right?” She searched my face, though I doubt she could have seen much through the dark lenses. I nodded and closed my eyes, and the next stream of tears spilled down.
I tried not to let myself sink into the same old dark thoughts and even darker memories, instead wondering whom she had lost. She had never spoken of her parents or any other family member. Had she been given up for adoption? Had she, too, lost her parents in some horrible way? Then the dream came back, and I heard Lilith repeat,“You will not be able to save her, just as you could not save your mate—Shemer, was it?”Mate? And who the hell was Shemer?
Relax, Jade,I told myself.It was nothing but a stupid dream.
Claire sat in silence with me while I ate. Although my stomach kept making rumbling noises, it didn’t allow much in. Nate called her from the bedroom to help him with his tie. I sank low in the chair and wished the day’s events were over already.
The killing was a provocation meant to produce another signal from her. If and when this dark-haired girl saw what was meant for her eyes to see, then I would know for certain what powers she possessed. The risk was great, but the need to know greater.
She had arrived alone. I noticed her parking the truck. If anyone else had come, it would have been easy enough to disappear unseen. I held my ground and woke the sleeping cat. The girl walked in, not noticing me at first, just as mortals often do, stupidly refusing to accept the presence of the inexplicable. When she finally met my eyes directly, her reaction was peculiar. She stood silently, confused at seeing a stranger in her house, but a smile began to form in the corners of her mouth. I loved when the smile suddenly melted into a mask of terror—though I must admit, it was a horrible expression to witness on a human face. She was overcome by shock as she struggled to understand the scene before her eyes. This caused a surge of pleasure in me, of course. I sent the cat forward, not to kill but to frighten. It was time to see if my suspicions were correct. As I had expected, she fled with an agility and powerunusual in a human.
This simple chase had been enough to bring out the evidence I needed. Apparently, this girl, showing physical abilities far beyond the norm, had also shown that she was asummonerof animals. Some of the joy of the hunt faded when my beautiful panther was defeated, but I was still impressed by her show of power. It would be a wonderful thing to possess once I killed her.
The girl manifested her real nature. During the chase, I discovered more than I had expected. Her powers were not under her control, which was unusual. In her attempt to escape, her wings had begun to sprout. This is as dangerous for an angel on earth to do as it is for a human to get in a car with a stranger.
I had been running behind her the entire way toward the cliff, but she proved faster and more agile than I. Had she not stopped at the cliff's edge, I would never have caught up to her and seen what amazed me the most—and what has, since then, become my topmost priority in seeing again. Right where the wings were pressing hardest beneath her clothes, the shirt had begun to tear. And to my sheer amazement, the feathers that appeared werewhite.
Not only were there wings, but they werewhite! Itfairly staggered the mind. She was a pure angel on earth,nota fallen one. Moments before she fell over the cliff’s edge, I managed to reach out and pluck from her shoulder a singledivine feather.
I looked over the precipice, hoping to see her broken body dashed on the stones near the river, but saw nothing. There was absolutely no trace of her. She was gone. Normally, this would have set me back severely, but I had in my possession her feather, a part of her divine being. This was the greatest tool I could hope to get my hands on, for I could extract from it the saved memories of her corporeal life. I was going to learn, after all, everything I needed to know.
Divinity distilled from pure white feathers is primal—not shared—knowledge, and the darkest, cruelest, most ancient entities consider it mere legend. Even where I come from, some things are too obscured by evil to be commonly understood. I am the only being to succeed in creating what is known to my kind as a demigourd.
The demigourd is a living vessel into whose being the influence and memories of an angel are infused or combined. A demigourd can be any living creature, though its level of intelligence determines how effective it will be in receiving and transmitting information. The closer and longer the contact between a celestial or dark being and that creature, the stronger the bond or connection between them, raising the demi-gourd’s status and ability.
“Demon possession” occurs when a dark entity has been around a weakened mind long enough to begin exercising an influence on that creature. Higher-level demigourds are not only more intelligent, equaling even humans; they also have had a different, more intense contact with either a celestial or a dark being. This gives them near-angelic powers and immortality. When the fallen ones came to earth looking for humans to mate with, they never considered that those humans would eventually perish.
I placed the feather in a small bowl.
So far, demigourds produced by contact with whole, conscious celestial or dark beings have been exceedingly rare. Those humans who were able to escape became the witches, shamans, and mystic priests of all the old religions and myths.
A fragment or relic works much the same, though it is not easily to be found on earth, because an angel or demon would necessarily have to expose itself—which typically happens only during battle—by showing its wings, horns, or other nonhuman appendages. It is not every day that these things are shown in plain sight, and rarer still that a fragment can be found or taken.
I had managed to pluck a featherdirectlyfrom Jade. I did not yet understand how a pure angel was living on earth, with the connection to heaven still intact. And why was such a powerful creature so poor in defending itself?
It was time to begin a new search, but I had at my disposal very good information. I was not blindly seeking some intuitive hint of an unknown entity. In fact, now I was not facing an enemy at all, but hunting prey beyond my wildest desires. Her wings were what I needed to take from her. Now I could better plan my next step. I have at my fingertips the most precious prize. I have in my grasp the chance to destroy a pure angel and create, for the first time in a millennium, an actualgourd.
There was no denying the overwhelming disappointment I felt upon waking. I was alive. The rustling of papers close by made me conscious that I was not alone. I tried to move, to get up, but it was impossible. My body ached all over. My eyes felt heavy. I opened them, and everything was a blurred mix of colors. My heart started beating faster. Why couldn’t I move? Where was I?The rustling stopped, and I heard footsteps closing in on me. A dark shadow came to stand beside me.
“Ah, you are awake. How are you feeling?”
I opened my mouth to say something, but it was dry, and a stabbing pain in the back of my throat made me wince. A faint breeze followed him as he moved away.
“Here, drink this.” He slid his warm hand under the back of my neck and cautiously lifted me up. My body trembled at his touch. The cold rim of a glass found my lips, but I moved my head away. The “never take candy from strangers” rule surely applied here.
“It’s okay. I won’t hurt you, Jade. I promise.”
How did he know my name?I blinked a few times, trying to rid my eyes of the cloudy haze. The rim of the glass was again at my lips. This time I allowed the liquid in. It was bitter and warm, like nothing I had ever tasted before. Soon the burning subsided, and my sight cleared.
His face hovered over mine, only inches away, and I gasped. It couldn’t be. There was no way.
For a second, I thought he was going to kiss me, and I was surprised to find that part of me hoped he would. He smiled as he retreated into a far corner of the room.
I stared at him, wondering whether it was all a dream. Perhaps my wish had come true and I was dead. He could not be here, not in therealworld.
“Who are you?” my voice sounded hoarse. I looked away, embarrassed, and quietly cleared my throat. Lit candles filled the room with the scent of vanilla. “Where am I?” I kept taking my surroundings in. I was lying in a full-size bed with silky red sheets over me. I blushed at the thought of my being inhisbed.
By the bed were two nightstands without lamps—only candles lit the large room. Under some of the candles lay some old books in terrible condition, with pages spilling out of them. They looked hundreds of years old. I couldn’t understand why anyone would keep them so poorly. To my right was a large window covered with almost translucent white curtains and, over these, two thick red drapes that almost matched the sheets. They were shut, and no light entered from behind them. It was night, I supposed. An old-fashioned desk stood in front of the bed, with a large hutch on top where papers were taped and pinned. More candles flickered on the desk.
I looked back at him as he fumbled with something inside the closet.
“Hello?” I said in a loud voice, waving my hands in the air. Was he deaf?
He turned around and walked toward the bed. He was tall—I guessed him to be at least six feet three. His dark hair fell almost to his eyes. He seemed even more beautiful in this world than he had in my dream. Then he had been a mere imagining, but here, in front of me, he seemed more glorious than anything I could envision. He had a glow about him that made me feel at peace.
“Here’s a change of clothes,” he said. “You can use the bathroom out in the hall to change.” He pointed out toward the open door and into a dark corridor. “Second door on the left. I’ve left you towels if you want to freshen up.” His eyes searched my face.
“Mind telling me where I am, first?” I said. “I don’t know you. I don’t know where I am or how I got here.”
I sat up on the bed and looked down at myself with a sudden sense of panic. I was no longer in my black mourning dress; instead, I wore an oversize T-shirt that must be his, and sweatpants.
He caught my bewilderment and cleared his throat. “Why don’t you freshen up first, and then I will answer all your questions.” He looked down at his feet and stepped back so I could walk to the door.
My usual self would have protested, demanding answers to my questions at once. But just as he had done in my dreams, he had a way of soothing me. I looked at the open door and back at him. A shower would be nice. After all, I had no idea how long I had been here.
Grabbing the pile of clothes he had laid next to me on the bed, I got up. The room began to spin, and I felt myself reeling, going down. I tried to hold on to the bed but missed it. His arms found my waist, steadying me. The electricity that flowed between us weakened me. I was exhausted and not sure I would make it to the bathroom on my own. As if he had read my thoughts, he pulled me forward and led me out of the room and into the warm, dark hallway. Once in the bathroom, he turned on the light and laid the clothes on a white wooden chair next to the shower. I held on to the sink and lowered myself onto the closed toilet lid. My hand shielded my eyes from the bright light.
“What’s your name?” I asked without even looking up, my elbows resting on my knees, and my face buried in my hands.
“Got a last name, Blake?” Just looking up at him too what little energy I had.
“No last name. Just Blake.” He smiled wearily and then retreated into the hallway as he closed the door behind him.
“Just Blake,” I muttered to myself.
The shower made me feel like a person again, stronger and much rejuvenated. I made a mental note to ask Blake just how long I had been out. I picked up the clothes he had given me, and put them on, blushing at the sight of the black bra and panties. What possible reason could he have for keeping such things in his closet. A girlfriend, maybe? Jealousy coursed through me, and I felt childish. I bet she is very pretty.What are you doing?I asked myself.You have a boyfriend, remember?
Once I was dressed I grunted at the reflection in the mirror and stormed out of the bathroom. Blake was sitting by the desk, piling some loose papers on one side. I leaned into the doorway and looked at the room again.
“Feel better?” he asked without taking his eyes off the papers.
“Yes, thank you.” I smiled—a wasted effort since he wasn’t looking at me. I walked into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. “Is now a good time for you to answer my questions?”
I saw his shoulders tense, and then he spun around on his chair, smiling at me. “Sure. What is it you want to know?”
“Where am I? How did I get here? Who are you, ‘just Blake’? What happened?” The words tumbled out.
“Okay, then. Well, you are in my house. I brought you here. Iamjust Blake, andyoushould tellmewhat happened.”
I stared at him. Was this the best he could do? “What do you mean,Ishould tellyou? You’re the one who brought me here.”
“What were you doing at the cemetery?” His eyes seemed to flash brighter, but only for a second.
“I—it was my parents’ funeral.” It took whatever strength was left in me not to burst into tears in front of him.
“And then . . . ?” His eyes were now traveling down to my clenched fist.
“And thenis none of your damn business.” What had happened to me? Last thing I remembered was kneeling at the grave. My hand found the back of my head, there was a bump that still was tender. I stood up and stormed out of his room, fed up with his condescending tone.
The hallway was still dark, so I took a chance and turned right. I walked past the bathroom and another closed door but came to a halt when there was nothing but a wall in front of me. I stomped my way back past him as he leaned on his bedroom door with a smile on his face. I finally found the stairs and hit each step with a loud thud to emphasize just how annoyed I was at him. When I finally reached the front door I noticed there was no lock, no knob, no way of opening it. I pushed on it, wondering if it would be that simple, but the door didn’t move. I looked back at the stairs and saw him descend them in silence. He moved as if he was floating down.
“What is this?” I pointed at the bare white door.
Smart-ass. “Oh, wow, no kidding! But how the hell do Iopenit?” I said through clenched teeth. I wanted to get out of here, out of this strange house. Away from the indescribable feelings he sparked in me.
“I am the only one who can open it. And right now, I can’t let you leave.” He closed the space between us, and my heart started pounding fast. What did he want from me? What kind of place was this!?
He pulled the curtain aside and looked through the window, surveying the outside. “I don’t want anythingfromyou. I just have to make sure you are safe. That is all. I made a promise, and I intend to keep it.” My mouth fell open. Did he just respond to my thoughts? And what was he keeping me safefrom? I needed to get out of here, and FAST!
“You need to let me go. Now.” I tried to sound tough, but a slight creak in my voice gave me away just as it had in the dream.
“I am sorry; I truly am,” he said. “But I can’t.” He turned and walked toward another room. I stood my ground by the door. He turned on the light and sat on the couch in what, I could now tell, was his living room, motioning for me to sit next to him.Yeah, like that’s going to happen. “Oh, come on. Come sit so we can talk. Isn’t that what you wanted—to talk?”
I hesitated a moment, looking into the room. “Will you let me go after we talk?”
“If that is what you want.”
Skeptical, I walked over to him and sat on the leather chair that was tucked in the far corner. The seat made a farting noise when my weight fell on it, and I could feel my body burn in embarrassment. “It . . . it was the chair,” I mumbled.
Probably to hide the smile that spread across his face, he looked around the room. I cursed under my breath and took the room in. It was welcoming and warm, but there was nothing personal about it. There were no pictures on the walls, no magazines scattered over the coffee table, nothing whatever that might reveal any personal interests. The room, though clean, looked as if it had never been used.
“So talk,” I said.
“What do you want to talk about?”
I glared back at him. “You’re the one that wants to talk. I just want to leave. No offense, but I want to go home.” The tears started welling in my eyes.No. Do not cry,I told myself.Don’t let him get the better of you.
“You shouldn’t go home,” he said. “It isn’t safe.” His eyes were on mine now, any trace of his playfulness gone. He meant what he said, but I couldn’t understand why. “I saved you back at the cemetery. If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done so four days ago.”
“Wait . . .what! I’ve been here four days?” I asked, but the question that was really bothering me, I left unspoken.
“Yeah, you were pretty out of it. You woke up a few times, but I doubt you remember that.” He ran his hands through his sleek black hair. He was gorgeous, all right. He froze, his hand still in his hair, and looked at me, blushing.
“What happened to me? Why can’t I remember and why am I in danger?” I said to change the subject.
“Somebody attacked you at the cemetery, trying to mug you. All you need to know is that you are safe now. You are safe . . . with me.”
“Well, much as I truly appreciate your kindness, you know, for looking after me and all, I’m fine now. And I’d like to be on my way home. There’s nothing dangerous about my house. It’s just a big, empty house now. Nothing dangerous about that.”Right?
“You are not alone. You have me.”
Okay, seriously, could he really be answering my thoughts? I stared at him, searching for anything that gave him away—anything that gave me any reason to believe he was indeed hearing what was being spoken in my mind. He just stared back, not blinking. Just a sly, crooked smile on that gorgeous face.
“I don’t know you.” The words were a mere whisper, and I wondered if he heard them.
“Oh, but youdo. And just as I did before, I’m here to help you—if you let me, of course.” His expression took me aback. It was sincere, almost pained. “Please?”
I wanted to throw myself at him, to feel his arms around me, the warmth of his body comforting me.
Avan . . . Avan . . . Avan,I kept repeating to myself.Remember about Avan.
“What is so dangerous out there?” I said. “And why wouldyoube fit to help me?” The words came out with more anger than I had hoped for. I hated myself for feeling this way.
“It’s complicated, Jade.” He shook his head but gave no further explanation. He shifted his weight and looked away.
“Really? That the best you can do? ‘It’s complicated’? I wake up in a stranger’s house, wearing his clothes, after four days in a frigging coma, you tell me about these unseen dangers out to get me, and all I get is, ‘It’s complicated’?” I stood up and walked to the door. “Please let me out.” I didn’t care if I had to walk home—I needed to get out of here.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that . . . well, thingsarecomplicated, and it will take time for you to get used to what’s happening.” He had stepped over to me by now, and he rested his hand on my shoulder. I looked into his eyes, their green almost mirroring mine. Then, quite of their own accord, my eyes dropped to his lips. “I promise, you will know everything you need to know, but for now, Jade, it’s safer if you don’t. Please, let me help you.”
“How can I do that when I don’t know what I need helpwith?” I whispered. I needed to know what was going on. As ludicrous as it all sounded, something in me told me to believe him.
“You are very special and there are people out to harm you.” A lone tear made an impromptu appearance, and his hand held my face, forcing me to face him, as his thumb wiped my cheek. “I will not letanythinghappen to you. After all, you are . . .” He was quiet for a moment, and as I searched his face, he dropped his gaze to the floor. “You are my destiny.”
I didn’t pretend to comprehend what he meant. I simply closed my eyes and let his arms wrap around me. The warmth that came from his body made me feel at home, as if, somehow, this was where I belonged. He smelled of woods after a thunderstorm, clean and elemental.
I opened my eyes and found myself in my own room, Blake’s scent still lingering in the air. The light shone in through the window. A few puffs of cloud moved slowly overhead. The sound of birdsong made me smile. Had it been a dream?A wonderful dream,I thought to myself
Something moved on the corner of my eye, and my whole body tensed, wishing it was him.
“Jade?” Claire’s soft voice called after me. I peered down on the floor, and there she was. Her hair was the embodiment of messy, the perfectly styled bob gone and, instead, strands of hair shooting up like dry tuft grass in every direction.
I snickered, and in response she threw her pillow at me. “What!” I asked. “What did I do?”
“You’re mean, that’s what.” She grabbed a hairbrush from her bag and began combing it. Even looking as if she had just been electrocuted, she was still adorable. She looked at me again. “It’s nice to see you awake.”
Her words struck me as a little odd. “How . . . how long have I been sleeping?”
Claire lay down beside me on the bed. “Four days.”
So many questions were running wild in my head, yet nothing would come out. How was this possible?
“What happened at the cemetery?” Her voice was soft. “I thought we had lost you for a moment.” I was instantly taken back to the cemetery . . . the two caskets being lowered onto the same grave.
I closed my eyes and said in all sincerity, “I don’t deserve to be alive.”
“What did you just say?” Claire shot up on the bed.
“Can we just let it go?” I said. I turned onto my side, my back to her.
“I don’t think so.”
“It doesn’t matter now. If I had died along with Mom and Dad, people would have soon forgotten about me and my family.” I didn’t want to talk about it. It was painful, and it hadn’t happened as I wished. Still, it felt good to let all my bottled emotions out into the open.
“You thinkwewould have forgotten you just like that?” She was genuinely shocked. “You think Avan wouldeverforget you?” Hearing his name made me feel guilty. I hadn’t thought about him, and when I had been with Blake . . .
“I—I’m sorry,” I said. “You have to understand, everything I had, the ones who gave me the life I have, were ripped away from me. And, to make it worse, in a very brutal way. Claire, I saw them, their bodies . . .” I felt the tears brimming in my eyes as my vision got blurry. It felt good to cry. It felt as if I was draining some of the vast reservoir of pain that I kept inside me. The numbness that had consumed me was slowly easing its hold.
She wrapped her arms around me. She didn’t need to say anything for me to know she was there for me. Whatever I was going through, she would always be there.
When the last of my tears ran dry, I hugged my bent knees. We were quiet for a little while. “You should really think before you go blurting things like that. We are all here for you. Just talk to us. Let us in. We’rehereforyou.” Claire’s hand on my arm felt heavy and, at the same time, soothing, calming me down. Soon my eyelids felt heavy, too.
I woke up as a slight burning sensation began in my back, between my shoulder blades. I moved around the bed in discomfort, trying not to wake Claire, hoping it would soon go away. But it didn’t. The burning intensified until it became too much to take.
I got out of bed, climbing carefully over Claire and making sure I didn’t disturb her. Going into the bathroom, I swung the medicine cabinet door open and I poked around until I found the small orange bottle. I threw two pills onto my tongue, following them down with a big gulp of water.
“It will all change.”
My mother’s voice rang in my head. The pain kept growing as flashes of the dream of Claire ran through my head. Lilith . . . Claire . . . The burning was now almost unbearable. My hands clutched the cold marble counter as I let out a silent scream. The pain eased a little, but then another wave came and this time I grunted aloud. Whatever this was, it wouldn’t go unnoticed.
My shirt felt tight, as if someone were pulling on it from the back. I pulled it off over my head and threw it onto the floor. My hands felt sticky. I looked down at the faint trace of blood across my palms. I turned to the side and looked at my reflection in the mirror.
What the hell . . . ?
I stared at my reflection in horror. There were two bloodied slits on the middle of my back, perhaps an inch inward from my shoulder blades. With each wave of pain, they grew larger, tearing my skin open. I fell to my knees and let out an agonized growl as I squirmed, hoping to find a way to make it stop. As I stood back up and looked at myself in the mirror, I saw my eyes glow. Another growl escaped my throat, and a ripping sound filled my ears. The tears were flowing incessantly as the trickle of blood worked its way down my back and onto my jeans.
There was a tap at the door. “Jade? Are you all right?” I couldn’t answer her. Instead, a piercing scream came out of my chest. The pain intensified, and I closed my eyes, both hands covering my face. There was the sound of the shower curtains being pulled back, and something thumped against the door, making me wince. “Jade!” Claire was screaming at me to open the door.
The pain subsided a little, and at last I dared open my eyes. The slow burning sensation spread in a wave from my back onto my limbs, and then it was gone. I stood motionless, afraid the pain would come back if I moved. I slowly looked up and met my glowing eyes in the mirror. Intrigued by them despite the pain and fear, I leaned closer. The green irises took on a fiery neon shine, with the edges burning a bright red.What . . .I recoiled from the mirror and took in my full reflection, which brought the terror back with a vengeance. The door flew open, and Claire barged in.
“Oh, my, Jade . . .” Her eyes were wide with shock.
“I . . . I . . .” But what was there to say? I had no words for what had just happened. “What is happening?” I asked her when I regained the power of speech. As if she could explain such a thing.
“It’s okay, Jade,” she said. “You will be okay.” She closed the space between us and put her hands on either side of my face. Her gray eyes bored into mine. My body felt heavy, and so did my eyelids. “It will all be okay.”
The darkness swirled around me until it had consumed my awareness, and I was gone.
* * *
The school allowed only a three-day mourning period for any family death, and since I had already missed four days, I had no choice but go to school that Friday.
I woke up in a dazed state, unsure what to make of last night. What was a dream, and what was real?What a nightmare.Massaging my throbbing temples, I looked over to the clock on the nightstand and pulled the covers off.
I looked around the still darkened room but couldn’t find her. As I shuffled into the bathroom I sniffed the air.Pancakes.Realizing I was famished, I hurried into the bathroom for a quick shower. On the floor, crumpled next to the vanity, was the white shirt I had on last night, now splotched with red stains. I picked it up and examined it closely, but I already knew they were blood.
Could it not have been a nightmare after all? Had it truly happened? What did it mean?
Feeling disoriented and thoroughly confused, I got into the bathtub, turned on the shower, and let the warm water caress my skin. My head throbbed harder than before, and to make matters worse, I was now nauseated. I curled into a ball in the tub and hoped Claire would come and check on me soon.
“Jade?” I must have dozed off, because when I came to, the water from the shower was barely warm. Claire came into the bathroom and found me crying and shivering in the tub. “Oh, no,” she said gently. “Here, let me help you.” Grabbing a towel from the bathroom closet, she helped me up.
She helped me dry off and then slid my arms through the robe that was hanging behind the bathroom door. Before even making it to the door, I threw up in the toilet. Sitting there on the floor, without looking up, I asked the one thing that had me scared to death: “What is happening to me?”
She didn’t answer, which prompted me to look up at her. My body was shaking uncontrollably—whether from cold or fear, I couldn’t be sure. A mix of emotions ran wild through her face: sadness, pain, expectation.
“Claire? What’s happening to me?” I repeated, pleading this time.
She knelt on the floor next to me and rubbed my back. “It’ll be okay,” she said. “You don’t need to worry.” I shook my head and let her help me up. “It’s going to get better.” She sat me on my bed and went to my closet to pick out something for me to wear.
“Thank you,” I said as she helped me get dressed. And as she went to the bathroom and came back with the hairbrush, I said, “You know you’ll have to tell me what’s going on, right?” I didn’t understand how I could be so calm; it was as if something in the air were making me feel that way. Somehow, I was immune to the nervousness I should be feeling.
“I know,” she said. “Let’s just try to get through today. We’ll have all weekend to talk about things.”
She pulled my hair onto a ponytail, the straight ends caressing my back.
“Voila!” she said. “You’re all done. Now, let’s go downstairs and get some food in you. We need you strong.” The smile on her face could not ease the fear that clenched in my gut. My back tingled again as we headed down the stairs.
11 THE ENCOUNTER
My first day back at school, and I could feel all eyes on me. The day was gloomy, with low-hanging clouds in every shade of gray. Thunder rumbled in the distance, sounding as if there were a bowling alley in the sky. I had pleaded with Claire many times to let me stay home. But she was adamant that I take my life back, that I not let what had happened rule how my life would unfold from this point forth. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she said. “It didn’t kill you.”
I wasn’t so sure. I hadn’t physically died, but everything in me—my soul, my heart—was broken. The Jade who existed before was gone, and now all that remained was the burden of what happened—a burden I would carry with me until the end of time.
As soon as we got out of the car, students stared at me, some sending their silent sympathy, others whispering under their breaths as they checked me out. Another time, I may have not cared, but now my moods were fluid and unpredictable, and I could feel the anger rise from deep within me.
I walked the rest of the way with my eyes glued to the floor, somehow navigating through the traffic of bodies in the hallway. On the painful way to my locker, a few teachers approached me and gave me their deepest condolences. I simply nodded and never said a word. I tried to smile, but I don’t think it ever showed in my face.
I made it to first period just in time. Everyone was already seated when I opened the door and walked in, just as the bell rang overhead.Great,I thought.More pitying looks. The room fell silent as I made my way to my desk. The way everyone was acting was starting to get under my skin. Did they think I felt better because they felt bad for me? Because I went through a tragedy? No, all I wanted was for it all to stop, for everyone to leave me alone and treat me normally—or, better yet, just don’t think about me at all. I wanted to go home and curl up in the bed, pull the shades down, and never get up.
I sat down at my desk, making as much noise as possible when I dropped my bag on the floor. Avan leaned over and squeezed my hand, and suddenly things seemed more bearable. And yet, I pulled my hand away and put it inside the pocket of my hoodie. I didn’t need people feeling bad for me. It just made everything worse. I knew he just wanted to be there for me, butIwasn’t there anymore.
Mr. Morris walked toward me and leaned in to whisper, “Jade, my sincere apologies for what has happened. And although I don’t wish to make it any harder for you, I will need you to remove your sunglasses, dear. No sense in you or me getting in trouble over them.” He stood tall and glanced down at me, waiting to remove my shades.
My voice sounded so firm and loud, it caught even me off guard. Claire’s mouth fell open. Nate shook his head slightly.
Mr. Morris straightened and, not whispering this time, said, “I’m afraid it isn’t a request.” He wasn’t about to let a seventeen-year-old talk back to him, never mind the extenuating circumstances.
Avan leaned in and whispered in my ear, “Jade, just do as he says, please?”
I rolled my eyes, though no one could see it behind my shades.
I pulled them off and stared Mr. Morris dead in the eye. From the astonished look on his face, it was worse than I had imagined. Some kids who had turned around to watch the exchange gasped.
After Claire and I walked into the school this morning, I had stayed behind, needing a moment before running the gauntlet of pitying looks inside. Watching all the kids hurry into the building, some chatting next to their cars, smiles and laughter all around, I had felt like throwing a punch through a window. But instead, I had gone into the bathroom and pulled out my makeup bag. I looked in the mirror and drew thick lines all around my eyes. After all, I was the emo girl, right? When I had done my makeup I hadn’t taken into account what I would see once I opened my locker: a picture of me sandwiched in between Mom and Dad. Just as the picture on my phone screen had done, it invited unbidden tears, with no way of stopping them. I slammed the locker shut and ran into a bathroom stall again to muffle my cries. I hadn’t bothered to glance in the mirror, or I would have seen what the tears did to my makeup.
I sure wished I had done so now.
I smiled at him. “Is this better, Mr. Morris?” I asked with a defiant glare.
He stared at me for a moment, unsure what to do. He could have sent me to the restroom to clean up, but instead he shrugged his shoulders and said as he walked away, “Very well, you may keep your glasses on for now,” and went on to start his lecture.
I quickly slid the shades back on, pulled the sleeve over my hand, and made a blind attempt at cleaning under my eyes. Avan’s eyes were on me, burning onto me. It made me want to cry that he had to see me like this, moody and, worst of all, broken. I wasn’t worthy of him anymore. The Jade he had known and loved was gone, shattered.
I pulled my hoodie on as far as it could possibly go, and wished I could just disappear. With any luck, the day would go fast. I was not in the kind of mood to be nice, so every time anyone dared glance my way, I looked away.
In between classes, Claire and Nate tried to make small talk with me, to pull me from the dark, cold rut I was in, but all I did was nod and make halfhearted attempts to smile. During lunchtime, while I dropped my books off at my locker, I felthimcoming toward me. It amazed me that even in the sorry state I was in, his energy called for me and mine continuously searched for him. I felt his hand on my arm, moving downward, searching for my hand.
“Join me for lunch?” His soft breath on my ear made my insides quiver.
“I think I’m actually going to call it a day,” I said. “Too much on my mind to just sit around and deal with—I have to get out.” I pulled away from his embrace and started to walk away, never once looking back.
He reached me and held my hand, soothing me. “I’ll come with you.”
“No! Please, I need to be alone. I need everyone to stop babysitting me, okay?” I pulled away. I was being unreasonable, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted life to go back to normal. It never would, though.
I slowed my pace,wantinghim, feeling a yearning in the pit of my stomach that never eased, like an ache seeking its remedy. I hid in the bathroom until the hallway was clear, and made a quick stop by Claire’s locker. After a few tries, I got the right combination. I slid my hand into her purse until I found the keys to her car.
Shortly after one thirty, I reached my first destination: my parents’ now darkened and closed store. I sat on the car with the music as background noise, leaned in between the seats, and grabbed my gray hoodie from my backpack. I put it on before killing the engine, then walked to the entrance, where I stood for a few silent moments, battling with myself, unsure now whether this was such a great idea after all. I took a deep breath and unlocked the door, but before entering the store I turned around, sensing someone right there behind me. Chills running though my body, I looked up and down the almost empty street, but apart from a few slow-moving cars, there was no one standing behind me, no one even walking.
I entered the store and quickly locked the door behind me. Unable to shake the feeling of someone watching me, I took another look outside. The smell of sawdust, which I once had thought repellent, was now sweet and full of nostalgia. I stood there, stuck in place, taking it all in. Mom was very organized and an amazing decorator. She had created part of the store as a living showroom.
To the right was a homey, cozy living room, assembled from antique furniture they had found. The Louis XVI gilt wood canapé settee was gorgeous, even with its more recent upholstery. In front of it stood a circa 1910 walnut and mahogany coffee table carved with beautiful spirals.
Against the wall stood the grandfather clock—minus its weights, which Mom had removed because the eerie, clanking chime startled her. A large bookcase, almost the same walnut color as the coffee table, was filled with books, some new and some that looked as though they might disintegrate at a touch. I moved closer and read over some of the titles, running my fingertips over them.
I walked around touching every piece of furniture my dad had refurbished, feeling his presence in each one, then walked past the showroom and onto Dad’s work space. Each of his tools hung on its hook over his workbench. A small pile of sawdust and shavings had been swept into a corner.
I missed them so much. No amount of tears could ever express how much I missed them. I sat on Mom’s usual seat behind the cash register and caressed the counter in front of me, where, underneath the glass, she had kept her collection of bills from different countries. I took a deep breath and basked in the view that Mom had had for so many years, gazing through the big front windows onto the street. Dark clouds started to roll in, turning the sight before me a little spookier.
“Ki-sikil-lil-la-ke.You must leave,” the voice in my head urged. Startled by it, I froze.
I was quickly reminded of my second stop. Although I wasn’t done visiting the store just yet, I knew better than to ignore the voice within. Something, someone, was lurking out there. Maybe my parents hadn’t been what thisKi-sikil-lil-la-kewas looking for—maybe it hadn’t finished the job. Or maybe it was after me all along.
The alarm that my thoughts were inciting within me left my feet stuck to the floor. The paralysis didn’t last long, though. I retraced my steps all the way to the front of the store, locked it, and ran to the car, hitting the automatic door lock button. There was no trace of any panther or of Lilith.
I started the car and drove to the library, sporadically searching my surroundings for anything out of place. Arriving at the library, I pulled into the closest parking space to the building, grabbed my bag, and ran toward the elegant four-story sandstone structure.
As I reached the revolving door I slowed my pace, knowing that if anyone was after me, they weren’t likely to confront me in a public place—or so I hoped. Once inside, I walked over to the older woman sitting at the checkout desk. Her white hair was pulled into a bun, and she had thick black-framed reading glasses. “Excuse me, ma’am?” I said, laying my bag down on the cherrywood desk. “Which way is the computer lab?” It really had been a long time since I was here.
She stood up and leaned on the desk, then pointed to the far left corner of the lobby. “Right through those doors, sweetheart, up on the third floor.” I thanked her and had started away when she called after me, “You might want to be quick, because today we close at six.”
I nodded and looked at my watch. It was 5:25. I picked up my pace and followed her directions. As I was waiting for the elevators, a cold, bony hand grabbed my shoulder. The touch made me scream. I twisted around to break free. “She’s found me,” I thought. “And now she will kill me, too.”
“I apologize for startling you, dear, but you forgot your bag,” the librarian said, holding it out in front of her. She looked me up and down with a puzzled expression before returning to the checkout counter.
Good one, Jade. The killer librarian will beat you to death with the unabridged dictionary.Chiding myself for my nervousness, I stepped into the elevator and got out on the third floor.
I walked down the narrow corridor between bookshelves that seemed to have no end. Finally reaching the end of the stacks, I found a room with several large tables and chairs. To my left there were three rows of perhaps five computers each. I seemed to be the only one on this whole floor, and that made me feel uneasy.
Sitting down at the first computer on the last row, I moved the mouse around, and the screen came to life. I searched for panther names. Nothing caught my eye, and I was just about to close the search screen when an entry with the heading “Panther Mythology” caught my eye. It sounded promising, so I started reading. A few lines down, I read, “The panther was said to save people from the dragon, or Evil One.” Right then I knew that the article would have nothing of what I was looking for. In fact, it was just flat wrong—this benevolent creature that was supposed to save people had just killed my parents.
I tried to spell the name that the voice kept telling me about. I typed “keesikillakee” and got nothing, but in one of those “Did you mean?” windows I found it: “Ki-sikil-lil-la-ke.” I quickly clicked on it, and it redirected me to another page of results. I clicked on the second result; it was from one of the most reputable Web sites.
Once, twice . . . Couldn’t be—I must have spelled it wrong.
The picture on the screen resembled the woman in my dreams. I read on. Sure enough, her name was Lilith. The voices in my head must have been playing games with me, because this woman was from Adam and Eve’s time. It was all ludicrous. I kept reading, though, hoping to find some kind of connection. She was made out of Adam and the Earth, rebelled against Adam, and got together with an archangel named Samael. Then, somehow, somewhere along the way, she became a demon.
A demon—sure.Was I supposed to believe this crap? I stared at the page until I saw in the corner of the screen that it was 5:50. I hit “Print,” closed my screen, and grabbed my bag before walking over to the little counter with two printers on it. I waited for all six pages to print and slid them into my bag.
It can’t be,I thought as I made my way to the elevators once again. It wasn’t possible that some demon created in the time of the Garden of Eden was after me. Then again, nothing that had happened lately made much sense, so maybe this wasn’t as far-fetched as it would have seemed just a few days ago. Why would she be afterme,though? What did she want?
My stomach started hurting. Somewhere, hidden in plain sight, was the key to making sense of this story. There had to be. It was time for me to have that talk with Claire and Nate.
It was dark by the time I came outside. I speed-walked to my car, fumbling with my backpack as I fished out the hoodie once again and rummaged for my keys. The cold air got even colder—unnaturally so. I stopped, feeling a presence behind me.
Don’t turn around, Jade,I told myself.Just keep walking. I took a few more steps and felt it come closer. I spun around, and there she was, head cocked to the side, studying me. ItwasLilith. Her red hair flowed down almost to her waist, floating a little in the breeze, so that it looked almost like flames—the way it had looked in my dream. I felt a calm come over me. As she came closer, the voice inside my head urged, “Run!” I couldn’t move, though. My eyes were locked on her, mesmerized by the grace with which she moved.
Her black dress swayed and billowed with the breeze. Beautiful as the sight was, it gave my belly an uncanny twist. “Where are the cherubim who are always at your side? Not guarding you today?” Her voice was mocking me, yet at the same time it was soft and velvety. She couldn’t be the same horrid being described on the Web site. It made no sense.Cherub—wasn’t that what she had called Claire in my dream?
“Wh— who?” I asked. She gave an eerie smile at that and twitched her head again, as if trying to read my whole being. Then her gaze turned to irritation.
“Jade, run!” the voice yelled at me again.“Now!”
I snapped out of whatever lock she had on me, and as I turned to start running away, I ran right smack into Claire. I took her in for a moment, making sure it wasn’t my mind playing tricks on me.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I grabbed both her arms, as if she might disappear at any moment. I scanned the whole parking lot, which by then was empty, and found no sign of Lilith. Was my mind toying with me? Lilith had never been here. It was just my overactive imagination . . . right?
“Jade! Are you okay? What happened?” Claire pulled me back around to face her.
I tried to catch my breath and give my heart some time to slow down. “I’m all right,” I said. “I just thought I saw something.” Shehadbeen here. I was sure of it. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Well, someone decided to steal my car, so Nate and I came to town looking for you and I saw the Beetle. So he dropped me off and went home. I figured I’d give you a ride home.” She seemed totally normal while giving me her explanation, but something told me she wasn’t being completely honest. I had dropped my bag the moment I decided to run, so I picked it up and searched for the keys, all the while looking around for any sign of Lilith. But she was long gone.
We drove in silence for some time. I was lost in thought about what this strange woman could possibly want from me. And what did she mean about the cherubim guarding me? What the heckwasa cherub, anyway? The more I thought about it, the weirder it seemed that Claire had found me at the library. After all, Hollow Falls’s library was about ten minutes past downtown. No one came out here but people who lived here or were going to the library. Claire wouldn’t drive by “just because,” even if shehadbeen looking for me.
“So, how did you know where to find me?” I asked casually, stealing a quick glance her way.
She shifted on the driver’s seat, and from the corner of my eye I saw her mouth form a thin line, which could only mean she was thinking—possibly about another lie to feed me. “I didn’t. As I said, we were driving by and I saw you walk out—”
I cut her off. “No. You said you saw thecar,not me. So what’s it going to be, Claire? What is going on? Are you finally going to tell me what’s up?”
She didn’t say a thing, didn’t even blink—just stared out the window.
Now I was starting to get annoyed. Here I had a supposed demon after me (even if I still didn’t quite believe it), and weird things had been happening for quite some time. And she wanted to pretend everything was just hunky-dory?
“That’s okay,” I said. “Don’t tell me anything, but sooner or later you’ll have to. Something’s happening, and I have no idea what it is or how to control it. So if you don’t want to help me . . .” I left the unsaid threat hanging like an elephant in the air, but she didn’t budge and didn’t say a word for the rest of the drive home.
As she parked in my driveway and turned off the engine, neither of us moved. “Look, Jade,” she said, staring ahead at the garage door, “it’s more complicated than you could ever imagine, and I just don’t know if you’re ready yet.” She turned and gave me an apologetic look.
“But I need to know!” I was practically yelling. “Do you get that? How complicated isthat?”
“Let’s just go inside and I’ll explain as much as I can,” she said, sliding out of her seat a little too quickly and walking up to the house.
Inside, I turned on some lights and headed to the kitchen. There may be someone trying to kill me, but I wasn’t dead yet, and I was starving. I sat on the couch with a bowl of corn flakes, waiting for her. When she didn’t start, I said, “Who is coming after me? Andwhy? What have I ever done to anybody?”
I could feel her body tense. Then the doorbell rang, and she stood up. When she came back, Nate was with her.
“Great,” I muttered. “Maybeyou’lltell me what the hell’s going on.” I put a spoonful of cereal in my mouth and crunched away. It seemed really loud.
“Okay, so what is it that you think you already know?” Nate asked, dropping his lanky frame onto the couch. I caught the twinkle of amusement on his eyes. Did he think this wasfunny? My parents had been dead less than a week!
I told them about the voices and my dreams, though keeping the part about Blake to myself. I also skipped Lilith’s showing up at the library. After all, I wasn’t totally sure ithadbeen real.
“It isn’t exactly what you’d call normal,” I said when I was done. “Nothingthat’s been happening is. I need to know why, and I need to know why my parents died.”
Nate stared at me, taking me in, looking as if he was weighing his options. He opened his mouth and was about to say something when Claire interrupted him.
“We’ll help you, but this is a whole ’nother world, Jade. As much as you may think you’re prepared, well, what I’m about to tell you is going to hit you hard.”
“Can you at least tell me why someone is after me?” I asked.
“We don’t know yet what they want, exactly,” she said. “But we’ll figure it out—I promise.”
“Why does she call you ‘cherubim’?” I watched her, half expecting another evasive answer, but instead I hit the jackpot. She couldn’t have looked more shocked if I had just slapped her. She stayed silent for a while.
Nate scooted closer on the couch and brought his face right up close to mine. “Where did you hear that word?”
“I told you, after my parents died I had a dream.” I looked at Claire. “You and she where there, and she called you a cherub and said something about you not being able to save me, just like you couldn’t save—”
“Shemer,” she finished. She fidgeted in her seat. “It wasn’t a dream, Jade. It was a different realm. I didn’t sense you there—I have no ideahowyou got there.” No longer talking to me, she was pacing back and forth in front of the TV and muttering to herself.
“This changes things,” Nate said after a brief silence. “It’s progressing too fast. It’s become too dangerous now.” I could see in both their faces the faintest trace of alarm, but just as suddenly as it had come, it was gone.
“Whatis!” I was yelling now. “What are youtalkingabout?”
Claire started making plans for us to leave, saying that Lilith was too close now and that she could come after me at any moment. I tried to ask why she would be after me in the first place, but she wouldn’t acknowledge me. It was as if I was completely gone. They were talking among themselves, and I was left out of it all.
“I’m not going anywhere until someone explains to me what the hell is going on!” Once again I sounded like a six-year-old throwing a tantrum. I even stamped my foot on the floor.
“You’re in danger,” Nate said matter-of-factly as Claire kept pacing back and forth.
“Gee, really?” I deadpanned. “Dear me, I had no idea I might be in some sort of danger.” Then, dropping the sarcasm, I said, “Whatarewe exactly?”
In response, all I got from Claire was a blur as she flashed by me and pounded upstairs to the guest room, slamming the door behind her.
I turned and looked at Nate. “What the hell wasthat?” That was Hollywood vampire fast—too fast for human eyes to catch, but I had caught it.
“That’s Claire, and that was a glimpse of what we are,” he simply said as he made his way toward the staircase.
12 THE PROBLEM
Since no one would help me get my arms around what was going on, I decided to go for a drive. I couldn’t just sit and do nothing, even though I knew in the back of my mind that Lilith could find me anytime she liked. Right now I didn’t care. Hell, for all I knew, she may actually explain more about all this than my so-called best friends.
As I got in the car and started driving, feelings of betrayal started to fill my head. My two best friends, whom I had shared everything with, were holding out on me. All this time shared with them felt like a lie. Why were they even my friends—because they wanted to be, or because they had to? I didn’t want to think about it too much. I obviously wanted answers, but no one was giving them to me, and everything else that was happening around me was just too weird. Maybe Claire was right: maybe I should just stay out of it. But how could I do that?
I had made it downtown, where all the shops and restaurants were still open and lively with all types of people. I rolled down my window for the first couple of blocks, just letting the music from the restaurants, the laughter, and the happy chatter fill the car. I decided that a walk in the cold night might help clear my head, and I parked near Mom’s favorite spot, Capri Valley, a homey little Italian restaurant.
I made my way down Main Street and cleared my head of all that had been going on. I wanted to take this little time I had alone and just be me—whatever was left of me, at least. I went into a few clothing stores and fell in love with too many outfits and accessories.
What was I going to do when I needed money? I would probably have to get a job after school and start saving up. The house had been paid off a long time ago, so I didn’t have to worry about mortgage payments or rent, but everything else was up in the air at the moment. It was still hard to believe that at seventeen I was all alone.
The night started to get colder, and as usual, I didn’t have a sweater with me. I remembered I still had the debit card Dad had given me a couple of years ago for emergencies. At the time he gave it to me an emergency was not having enough for a cab or for pizza on a Friday night. Since I had never really gotten the chance to use the card, I didn’t really know how much was on it, so I picked up the cheapest (and, as it happened, ugliest) sweater I could find. Luckily, there was enough for that.
As I left the store and walked to the car I started feeling a pull, as if my body were in control and wanted me to keep walking. Not knowing what the pull was, I fought it at first, but it kept getting stronger until I just gave in and let it lead me. I stopped at a café where some kids from school usually hung out. Not really our kind of spot, but from where I was standing, I could recognize some classmates.
I took a quick look around the outside tables and then took a closer look through the window at the inside. To the left were about six tables filled with kids having sodas and sweet treats. To the right were two pool tables, with a small counter attached to the wall, where people had set their drinks, and some girls had laid their purses. Amy and her preppy friends were acting all dumb around the football team. I kept scanning the place, my body still urging me to proceed.
That was when I sawhim. He was by the pool table nearer the wall, one hand on the side of the table and the other holding a pool cue. He was laughing at something someone had said, and he looked so lively and vibrant, I could actually see light emanating from him. It was probably the same energy I felt every time I was around him.
He leaned over the table. As he was lining up to take the shot he picked up his gaze, and it just sort of locked straight on to mine. I couldn’t believe my own eyes. He was hanging out withhernow? I gave him the once-over. Howcouldhe? He straightened up and handed the cue to Ron, the quarterback. Amy grabbed his arm, probably asking where he was going, and at that point, I decided I had seen enough.
I started walking back to the car, my feet hitting the ground at a fast clip. I needed to get away from here, from him.
He grabbed my arm and spun me around. “Hey . . .” His voice sounded short of breath.
I didn’t respond. I was too upset to come up with anything to say right now. I fidgeted with the sleeve of my new sweater, almost ripping it apart.
“What are you doing here?” he said, looking around. “Are you alone?”
“Does it matter? You seem to have all the company you need.” I spat the words at him. Of course he would be with her—I was nothing but baggage now. I shook my head in disbelief. “I can’t believe you.” I looked up at him, searching his eyes.
“It isn’t what it seems,” he said. I wondered if it sounded as lame to him as it did to me.
“That’s what they always say, and it always ends up beingexactlywhat it seems.” I turned around and started walking away. Just then I heard her shrieking, annoying voice.
“Avan?” There was that unmistakable grating lilt. “Why don’t we go back inside? There’s nothing worthy out here.”
I slowly turned to face Amy.
“You don’t need to do charity work for theorphan.”
Avan got in front of me, shielding me from her—or maybe it was the other way around.
“Take it back,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Why would I? It’s true, isn’t it?Orphan.”
I couldn’t believe she was actually saying this—as rude and mean as she was, this had to be a new low, even for her. And what was worse, she wasn’t showing the slightest remorse about it. I had taken years of bullying from her, and she never got to me that much, but now she was actually making fun of my parents’ death. This was where I drew the line.
The old Jade was long gone, replaced by a new one who wouldn’t take crap from anyone. And it was high time someone stopped Amy. It was getting out of hand.
“Amy, that was uncalled for,” Avan said. He put his hands behind him, trying to hold me back so I wouldn’t do something I was going to regret. I knew what she was doing. She was mad that she hadn’t been able to break him, and so now she was going to pull out all the stops to hurt me.
“Oh, what a good boyfriend you are, Avan,” she hissed. “But be careful, or you may end up dead, too.” That was it. Although she may have been right, she was way out of line, and something inside me awoke.
I took a step around Avan as he tried to reach for me, but there was no turning back. The feeling in my back was stronger now than it had ever been before. I took another step forward. My face felt numb. I knew there was no expression on it anymore. Amy’s friends took a few steps back, and as I searched Amy’s eyes, there was no backing down—she was daring me to do something to her. I lifted my hand, my index finger out, pointing it right at her face, “Don’t ever talk about my parents that way, understood?”