Authors: Cyn Balog
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2012 by Cyn BalogJacket art copyright © 2012 by Cliff Nielsen
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Delacorte Press is a registered trademark and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataBalog, Cyn.Touched / Cyn Balog. — 1st ed.p. cm.Summary: Nick is tormented by visions of “future memories,” and although he can risk changing these events if he goes “off script,” the results are often worse than what he has seen, but when he meets Taryn one summer at the Jersey shore he begins to understand where this hated power comes from and what it means.eISBN: 978-0-375-89906-5 [1. Magic—Fiction. 2. Blessing and cursing—Fiction. 3. Love—Fiction. 4. Mothers—Fiction. 5. Beaches—Fiction. 6. New Jersey—Fiction.] I. Title.PZ7.B2138 To 2012 [Fic]—dc232011022114
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This novel has not had an easy time of it. The poor thing was seriously neglected for years, had many starts and stops, and, like Nick, spent much time in chaos and had its life fully revised multiple times. Nick and I owe a big debt of gratitude to those who have helped us make sense of it all along the way. Thank you to readers Brooke Taylor, Teri Brown, Maggie Stiefvater, Mandy Hubbard, Cheryl Mansfield, Heather Dearly, Karen Kincy, and Jennifer Murgia. Thank you to my agent, Jim McCarthy, for having unwavering faith in this book from the first few chapters. Thank you to the editorial team at Delacorte Press, including Stephanie Elliott, Wendy Loggia, and Krista Vitola, as well as everyone at Random House Children’s Books, for being so lovely to work with every time. To my readers, and to book bloggers and book lovers everywhere who have spread the word about my novels, thank you just isn’t enough. And once again, thank you to my wonderful family, because it’s your love—the one constant, unshakeable thing in my otherwise chaotic life—that made this possible.
“THAT’S THE EFFECT OF LIVING BACKWARDS,” THEQUEEN SAID KINDLY: “IT ALWAYS MAKES ONE A LITTLE GIDDY AT FIRST—”
“LIVING BACKWARDS!”ALICE REPEATED IN GREAT ASTONISHMENT. “INEVER HEARD OF SUCH A THING!”
“—BUT THERE’S ONE GREAT ADVANTAGE IN IT, THAT ONE’S MEMORY WORKS BOTH WAYS.”
“I’M SURE MINE ONLY WORKS ONE WAY,” ALICE REMARKED.“ICAN’T REMEMBER THINGS BEFORE THEY HAPPEN.”
“IT’S A POOR SORT OF MEMORY THAT ONLY WORKS BACKWARDS,” THEQUEEN REMARKED.
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It had taken years, but finally, I had everything down. Perfect. For three months, everything had been perfect.
But of course I went and screwed it up.You will pedal three blocks. Slowly. You won’t be out of breath. You’ll see the cat lady on her front porch and she will wave at you, ask you how that mother of yours is doing. She will be wearing her red housecoat and fuzzy orange slippers, and she will be petting either Sloopy or Joe, one of the calicos, though you won’t know which. You will answer, “Fine, thanks.”
“How is that mother of yours doing, Nick?”
I glanced up at the decaying home, just enough to see the orange and red on the old lady’s skeletal figure, and a furry creature in her pockmarked arms. “Fine, thanks.”
That morning I’d awakened with the prickling sensation I always got when something big was on the horizon. Every turn of the wheels on my rusty old bike seemed to shriek “Something’s coming, something’s coming, something’s coming.…” I knew I would save a little girl on the beach one day, or at least, that was what the jumbled flashes of memory in my head seemed to say. Since summer began, I’d relived the experience over and over in my mind, my mouth against her cold, salty lips, the moment her eyes flickered open and I knew I’d done it, saved her. Was today that day?You will notice how the sun sparkles on the blacktop, as if it’s covered in crystals. Steam will rise from it. You will see a little boy on the boardwalk, eating a rocket pop and carrying a green bucket. He will have a cherry mustache.
I turned to the pavement. Noted that. Looked up on the boardwalk. Smiled at the kid, but wasn’t sure if I was supposed to. Wondered if that smile would come back to haunt me. The smallest mistakes were the ones that kept me up at night.You will bike across Ocean Avenue, right in front of a green pickup, and the driver will beep at you and yell something that sounds like “Dumbass!” You will not turn around.
I veered to the right. Held my breath. Wasn’t sure I was supposed to. Cringed. The sound of the horn wasn’t what I expected. It was a blaring honk instead of a cheerful beep, and it rattled me. I had to straighten out the bike to keep from swerving into a pile of sand, and suddenly found myself in the middle of the next memory.—straight up the ramp to the boardwalk, climb from your bike and lean it against the fence, under the Dogs Prohibited sign. You will twirl your whistle cord around your fingers and ask Jocelyn how it’s going.
I jumped off the bike and carefully propped it against the fence. It started to slide, so I reached over and grabbed it, realizing this was going to make me late. “—going?” I huffed out, a good portion of my words getting lost in my struggle to breathe. Jocelyn, the badge checker at the entrance to the Seventh Avenue beach, gave me a confused look, confirming my suspicion.You will not stop to say anything more and will arrive at the lifeguard stand as the noon siren sounds.
Great. Wasn’t I supposed to twirl my whistle or something? Was it too late for that? I reached into my pocket and pulled it out, gave it a few rolls around my wrist for good measure. I could sense that the noon siren was about to go off, and there I was, a good football-field’s length from the stand. If I didn’t hurry, I’d be toast. I started to break into a jog, and that was when I heard a kid’s voice. Had I been farther down the beach, where I was supposed to be, it’s likely the fragile voice would have been drowned out by the crash of the surf or the sound of kids playing hide-and-seek in the dunes. But there I was, a step away from the boardwalk, turning to see the little boy with the cherry mustache screaming at something on the street below the boardwalk, out of my view. I couldn’t be sure why he was frantic, but what he was saying was perfectly clear:
There are certain phrases that are impossible to ignore. I knew I should have hurried off to the stand, head down, completely oblivious. But in my past three months as a Seaside Park lifeguard, I’d gotten cocky, I guess. For a split second, I thought, Maybe it will be okay if I let my guard slip for just a moment. And by the time I realized it probably wouldn’t be, the damage was done.You will climb to the top of the lifeguard stand and Pedro will be asleep, snoring.
Just great. I knew I shouldn’t have left him alone. I started to pick up the pace but then stopped short when I heard a whistle blowing behind me.You will nudge him awake. He will sit up, blink, and point, saying, “Pink bikini at two o’clock.”
Of course Pedro would be pointing out the hottest pieces of ass on the beach instead of doing his job. I found myself wondering why, of all the lifeguards in Seaside, I had to be paired with the biggest horndog in Jersey, when another memory broke through.You will follow his pointing finger down the beach.
My pulse quickened. It was getting way ahead of me. I knew I looked like a total jerkwad to everyone nearby, pretending I didn’t hear that boy on the boardwalk as I continued onto the beach, but they didn’t understand. My whole life was on the line.
Like a mole, Jocelyn quietly poked her head up from her three-foot-by-three-foot box. She was so unremarkable, like a streetlight or a piece of litter, that people often walked onto the beach without seeing her. Even her “May I see your badge, please?” was feeble and spiritless and rarely turned heads. She always had this look on her face like she’d smelled something bad. Her eyes fell on me. “Can’t you do something, lifeguard?” She had to have known my name. Ten years ago, Jocelyn had been part of a long line of sitters Nan had used for me when she’d gone off to play bridge, before it became obvious that babysitters shouldn’t do the Cross house. We scared them all away. Unlike Jocelyn, we Crosses were unforgettable. I’d liked Jocelyn, though. She’d tried to play games with me, unlike all the others, who spent the time ignoring me and blabbing away on the phone.
Maybe that was why, when she asked, I stopped. Forcing a new memory down, I backtracked toward the boardwalk, kicking up scalding sand as I ran. I took all three steps at once and followed the little boy’s line of vision into the street.You will …
A girl about my age was crouched down, tying her running shoe. She was wearing nylon shorts, a tank, and earphones, which accounted for her nodding along to the music, completely oblivious to the fact that a furniture delivery truck was slowly backing into her. Okay, yeah, in terms of distance, I was pretty close to her, maybe only twenty yards away. But though it was a hot August day and the place was swarming with people, everyone else was just staring, like invalids, or like they wanted to see the girl get flattened. Some of them looked at me expectantly, like it was the duty of the guy in the red shorts to break into action à laBaywatchand save the day.
I strained to see the lifeguard stand in the bright noon sun. I could see only the top of Pedro’s head. He was slumped down, still, unmoving. Asleep. That morning when I’d arrived at the stand, he’d smelled like a brewery. He’d said he had the hangover from hell, but I thought he was still drunk. He kept pointing out hot girls and whistling at them, as if he was at some bar in the Heights. I probably shouldn’t have left him alone for lunch, but it was in the script. And I never went against the script.
Until now. I turned back toward the girl. Crap. I knew that even just standing there, frozen with indecision, was probably going to throw everything off. Sure enough, the first pangs of pain rapped at my temple.You will …
My grandmother always said that God puts signs everywhere. Maybe if the girl in danger hadn’t looked like my best description of an angel—a lion’s mane of curly platinum hair pushed back with a headband—I wouldn’t have destroyed that perfect future I’d found for myself. In that split second that she flipped her angelic white hair back to reveal skin so perfect it practically glowed in the sun, I realized it was a sign. God wanted—no, demanded that I step in.You will …
It was almost like I was outside my body, watching myself break away from the script. I took a few flying steps and launched myself off the boardwalk and onto Ocean Avenue, my fall cushioned by a pile of sand. Something in my head began to whir, softly at first. Yet somehow, in that moment, I held on to the naïve hope that everything wouldn’t change.
It might still be okay, I thought as I grabbed the girl’s arm and guided her out of the way. She was limp as a rag doll and didn’t fight, as if she was used to being pulled in different directions by complete strangers. As I positioned her safely on a plank near the boardwalk, I could hear the bass thumping from her earphones.
It wasn’t a very heroic scene. The rather large audience that had gathered didn’t applaud; they just quietly turned back to what they’d been doing, almost as if they’d wanted to see a tragedy. By that time, though, I wasn’t looking for applause. My hopes of getting back everything I’d had dwindled as my brain began to pound, flip-flip-flipping as new memories shuffled like cards.
I grimaced and blinked hard to stop the throbbing, the commotion in my head so loud that it drowned out the noon siren.
I’d grown used to the cycling of my future “memories.” Before that summer, it had happened every day, just a little. When I was a kid, before I’d learned to deal with them, my mind would shuffle constantly, weaving in new futures in place of the old ones, leaving others in the dust, like dreams. Maybe I’d forgotten, but back then, the cycling hadn’t seemed to hurt this much.
Of course, I’d never been able to go so long without any major cycling. Somehow I’d managed to make it almost three months without veering away from the future I saw in my head. It was a good future. A future I wanted desperately to keep. And now it was gone.
I collapsed on the pavement, breathing hard. Lifted my arms over my shoulders and squeezed my head between my elbows like a vise. Senseless images of people I’d never met, things I’d never done, shattered fragments of my future, sputtered through my head.You will … can.… be.… not …
“Hey, are you okay?”
It was a girl’s voice. The angel. In my blurry vision I could see two silvery pink running shoes, toes pointed at me.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I blurted out, trying to look up at her, when a surge of agony pulled my head down again. “Sun glare.”
She didn’t speak. I tried to raise my head, but it was a no-go, as if a fifty-pound dumbbell was dangling from my neck and someone was playing the drums on my cerebral cortex.
“Well, thanks. I didn’t see. I, um …,” she babbled, all the while forcing me to the sad recognition that this girl was intensely sweet and shy and everything I would look for if I didn’t know I was destined to marry a redheaded nurse named Sue from Philly in ten years. Except, I realized as my memories shuffled at a maddening speed, that outcome was gone forever. Sue existed somewhere, still, but she’d probably never be with me. And now my crash-and-burn with this girl was inevitable. I’d lost two hot girls in one morning.
Without warning, I smelled apples laced with cinnamon, like someone was baking pies nearby. I could almost taste them. My salivary glands kicked into overdrive and my mouth began to water. Then, suddenly, the memory disappeared. Whoosh. Gone.
The girl was trying to tell me about how she was new in town. It was where any normal guy would say something like “Where are you from?” or “Can I show you around?”, but instead, my eyes bulged, heavy, and I couldn’t bring myself to raise them higher than her perfectly shaped ankles. To top it all off, I felt drool bubbling over my bottom lip. Awesome. Just my luck. Why couldn’t she just leave? Leave now, but come back later so we could continue this conversation at a time when I wasn’t cycling, when I felt more normal? But for me, abnormalwasnormal. I’d been fooling myself, thinking I could change who I was.
Suddenly I saw craft paper and a paperback romance novel and water dripping on hardwood. Fear curdled in my body. A scream bloomed in my throat but came out as a muffled moan. A jolt of pressure rocketed through my eyeballs, seeming to slice them in half. I pushed my palms hard against my eye sockets. “No. No. No!”
Most girls ran screaming from me, but this girl wouldn’t leave. Perfect. She put her hands on her knees, and though I couldn’t see her face, I knew she was squinting at me like I was some experiment gone horrifically wrong. “Are you having an aneurysm?”
“No, I’ll be …” Another jab in my eye, and then a picture
Me, screaming flashed in front of my eyes. My next word was a muffled groan—“Fine”—because another memory was fighting against the rage of others, floating to the surface kissing soft lips, blond curls in my eyes and giving me a warm, tense feeling between my legs. What? I get to kiss her? Seriously? I was drooling in front of her, for God’s sake. I hadn’t completely ruined things with her with this moronic display? Just as I inwardly started to celebrate I caught another … it is unexpected tragedy that brings us together today the unexpected is often the most difficult to deal with and clenched my fists. Sure, in the future I’d perfected, there were funerals. But nothing horrible. My mother wouldn’t go until she was in her sixties. And my last official memory was digging for sand crabs in the surf with my grandson—I could even feel the ache of my bones with that memory, so I had to have been old. My poor grandson. That little blond kid. He was gone now, cast into dreamland with the others. God, I’d loved him. When I was young, I’d always hoped that when I cycled away from an outcome, all the progeny I remembered wouldn’t just disappear forever, that they’d have a chance to exist somewhere, with other families, like Sue. The more kids and grandkids I recycled, though, the less I believed that was true. Every time the experiences started to shuffle, I felt like I was murdering them.
Murderer! You killed her!
The words sliced through my head. I smelled something sour and felt a hot breath on my neck. The voice was so vicious and the memory so vivid, I thought it was real; I looked around and saw a small crowd of a dozen or so people in bathing suits, carrying their beach chairs and towels, staring at me. But no one was standing close by accusing me of being a killer. I would have wondered where the hell that came from if I hadn’t already known. The weirdest and most unimaginable things only came from one place: the land of the yet-to-be.
I shuddered and gripped my head tightly in my hands. “Green elephant,” I muttered under my breath.
She leaned forward. Apples again. Her hair smelled like apples. I inhaled deeply, feasting on the smell, since it was the only nice thing I could find about the moment. “Excuse me?”
I clenched my teeth. “Green elephant, green elephant. Green elephant.”
I figured that if anything could send her away, me muttering nonsensical phrases would be it. The phrase “green elephant” didn’t mean anything to her, but I’d invented it when I was nine or ten, and it meant everything to me.
“Do you want some water or something?”
Why did she have to be so damn nice? I pulled my head up and stared into her eyes, blue and endless, and
Blood on the staircase
I knew right then I was going to be sick. “Look.” I tried to keep my voice even, but it came out as more of a growl. “I don’t want anything from you, so just get the hell away from me.”
I was surprised by two things. First, at how I could bring myself to sound like a total jerkwad, which was what I probably was, but I’d always been too absorbed in my future to dwell on it. And second, at how she just nodded, as if it all made sense. She hurried up the ramp and jogged off, fastening the headphones over her ears as if we’d been chatting about the weather.
I sat alone for a moment, eyes closed, green-elephanting until the pain subsided and my mind slowed to a peaceful lull. A thousand new memories of the future bubbled under the surface of my eyes. On the bad side, there was something about blood on the staircase, and I had this strange ache in my chest. On the good side, there was kissing that girl. The rest I would have to sort out later. I felt like I’d gone ten rounds of a heavyweight title match. I couldn’t tell if it was because of the cycling or because the new memories would prove too horrifying to bear. I could change them. I could change the bad things, sometimes, by going off script.
The problem was, changing the bad things usually took away the good things, too. And there always seemed to be more bad things to replace the ones I managed to escape. The future I’d given up was a one-in-a-thousand future. I went to college, married Sue, who understood me as well as anyone could, had children and grandchildren. It wasn’t anything awesome, but it was normal, and that was all I wanted. The other hundreds of futures were like episodes of some bad television show. High drama, all the time. Once, I’d choked to death in my teens. Once, I’d accidentally caused a fire while making bacon in the kitchen and ended up homeless. Once, I’d wound up addicted to crack, in a loveless marriage to a Vegas stripper, and murdered in a drug deal in my early twenties. I’d done it all. In my head, at least.
And sometimes … sometimes, try as I might, I couldn’t change things. It was like certain past events sealed that certain future events would occur, and they couldn’t be changed, or it wasn’t clear how to change them. Once, when I was ten, I was trying so hard to follow the script that I tripped and broke my wrist. After that, I had this strong feeling I was going to get a huge bump on my head, but I couldn’t tell how. I tried not following the script, hoping to avoid that bump. But it didn’t work, because I didn’t know what in the script to change. Turned out that I had to give up skateboarding until my wrist healed, so I put my skateboard on the top shelf of my closet. I opened it one day and the skateboard fell out and whacked me on the head. So sometimes bad things were just impossible to avoid.You will climb up to the boardwalk and smile at Jocelyn. She will eye you up and down, and a couple of children and a man with a Boogie board will step aside to let you pass.
Crazy Cross. That was what they called me at school, and as I felt the eyes of all the beachgoers on me, I knew it wouldn’t be too long until they thought the same. I knew they’d run home and tell their friends what they’d seen, and I’d be the talk of the town again, and not in a good way. As I climbed up the ramp, quickly, trying my best to ignore the stares, that same sinking feeling resurfaced. For three months, I’d shed it, but now, it wrapped around me, heavy, like a winter coat.You will bury your feet in the sand and hurry down the beach.
I groaned and stepped off the boardwalk, sinking ankle-deep into the hot sand.You will hear the radio crackle with “Ambulance … Seventh Avenue.” You will see the crowd gathered at the waterline. Chaos. Shouts. Pedro will narrow his eyes at you when you break through, and scream, “Where the hell were you?”
They will tell you there’s no hope of saving the girl in the pink bikini. And you will know it is because of you.
I was usually too busy getting tripped up by my future to think about the past. But that afternoon, I couldn’t stop thinking about the past. I couldn’t get that little girl’s dead blue lips out of my mind. Those long eyelashes, coated in salt water and sand. She wasn’t one of my dreamland kids; she’d been living and breathing and growing on this earth. And now she was dead.
The girl had been playing in ankle-high water. We’d had a storm the night before, and she’d been dragged out by the strong undertow. In my memory, I’d shaken Pedro awake in time for him to point out the little girl. At the time I’d thought he was pointing out a piece of ass, but eventually I would have realized it was a drowning and I would have saved her. Ididsave her, dammit. I had the sore neck muscles to prove it, where her mother had hugged me so tightly, shrieking an endless supply of thank-yous into my ear.
In reality, though, Pedro slept through the noon siren, only to be awakened by the little girl’s mother screaming. Yeah, outwardly, it was Pedro’s fault. But my lunch break was up at noon, and I’d been late. I’d also known Pedro wasn’t in any condition to man the stand himself. I could easily have prevented it. But I didn’t.
It would take days or weeks or months to sort out what lay ahead in this new future, but I already knew some things. I knew that Bill Runyon, our captain, had summoned me to headquarters to can me. I knew he would give me that pity look, the one teachers reserve for students who “had so much potential” but still manage to become total screwups anyway. I knew he would use phrases like “good kid” and “take a breather” and that he would shift uncomfortably behind his desk while fingering the cords on the hood of his SPBP sweatshirt. He could single-handedly carry a four-man rowboat down the beach, but he was piss-poor at confrontation. I guess I could have left my whistle and ID on the bench outside headquarters, then biked away and considered my three-month tenure as Seaside Park lifeguard finito. That was what Pedro did; he’d wandered off quietly somewhere in the middle of the chaos, and I found his things lying on the bench. But I went in for the torture anyway. I had nothing better to do.
Besides, if I listened to Bill, chances were I wouldn’t have time to think about anything else. It was the thinking that killed me.You will sit on the chair at Bill’s desk and start to fidget. He will pretend to be going through papers, but you will know he is just avoiding this.
I sat down and laced my fingers in front of me. I fidgeted even when I wasn’t nervous, though I couldn’t actually remember a time I wasn’t nervous about something. Bill riffled through papers, and I wondered if he was thinking about my mom. Supposedly, they’d gone to high school together, which was why he always asked me how she was doing. Usually with the same kind of face you’d have if you were inquiring about a puppy that got run over by an eighteen-wheeler.
No, I wasn’t the first Crazy Cross he’d had to deal with. But I knew that if he—if anyone—had the chance to see things the way my mom and I did, he’d be just like us. I’d been the only one who’d seen the happy ending—the one where I’d carried the kid to the sand and performed CPR until she regained consciousness, coughing up seawater, in my arms. Now that outcome existed only in broken fragments, bits of sensation—the relief when she finally began to stir, the feeling of her sandy cheek against mine as she hugged me—somewhere in a corner of my mind. The rest of the world—the real world—had seen me arrive on the scene minutes too late and try to get her going, screaming “Breathe!” and pressing on her tiny little corpse chest over and over again, way past the time any normal dude would have given up. People in the crowd turned away, disgusted, but did I care? No. Instead, the EMTs who arrived with the ambulance five minutes later had to tear me away from the dead body.You will hear the faraway screams of glee from the children on the Tilt-a-Whirl at Funtown Pier and you will think of the little girl in the pink bikini. Bill will turn at that moment and see the anguish in your face. “Tough day,” he will say.
The children’s shouts made me cringe. The dead girl was probably in kindergarten, at an age when kids love school. Her friends would probably wonder where she was on that first day in September and then they would learn the awful truth. It would be their first taste of death, of mortality. It would likely scar them for years, maybe forever. Way to make your mark on the world, Cross, I thought. A dozen kindergartners will wet their beds for years to come because of you.
Once, Nan had sat me down to watch her favorite movie,It’s a Wonderful Life. I hated that movie, maybe because I envied the Jimmy Stewart character. He had such a positive impact on the world. Everything I did always turned to crap. I mean, lifeguarding? What was I thinking? Of course I couldn’t be a lifeguard, not when I could so easily go off script and have thousands of futures competing in my mind, destroying my concentration. It was like Betty Crocker running a weight-loss clinic.
“Tough day.”You will nod but say nothing.
I pushed away the thought of five bright-eyed tots being reduced to tears in the back of the school bus when another kid let the news spill that the little girl was dead. That wasn’t real. After all, I assured myself, I couldn’t be on the school bus with them. Sometimes it was hard to distinguish my thoughts of the future from the spirals of my imagination. Still, I could clearly see that snot-nosed kid sputtering “—is dead.”
Hell, I didn’t even know the little girl’s name.You will—
Sometimes I could think something so hard, I couldn’t see the script. I did that now, picturing instead my old standby, the green elephant. “What was her name?”
My mind began to shuffle before I could finish the sentence. But it wasn’t like the cycling had gone on a rampage, like before. It was only a small pang-pang-pang against my temple. I rested my elbow on the padded armrest and dug my fist into the side of my head to steady the throbbing.
Bill’s eyes were always soft. He was the good-natured, back-slapping, even type whose voice never rose beyond a whisper. He’d been readying the Good Kid speech, but his eyes narrowed. “Come on, Nick, let’s not go into—”
More shuffling. “Tell me.” But the truth was, I really didn’t need him. All the answers were already there in my head. I just needed to commit in my mind to travel far enough down a path to retrieve them. I could do it, if the answer could be found somewhere in the immediate future. I could find out anything if I wanted it badly enough. I just had to contend with the pain. I sat for a moment, imagining myself tracking down the answer, the pain escalating all the while. If I stopped right now and went back on course, followed the script like a good boy, the cycling would stop. But I couldn’t. I needed to know. Once I followed the path far enough in my head, the one where I lunged over the side of the desk and ripped the paper from Bill’s hands, receiving a punch from him that would make my lips bloody and swollen like raw sausages for weeks, I squeezed myself back in my chair, digging my fingers into the armrest to keep my body from actually doing it. Then I pressed my eyes closed and silently green-elephanted until only two words appeared in my mind.Emma Reese
I opened my eyes. My mouth still smarted from the punch I’d never receive. “Emma? Emma Reese? Is that her name?”
Bill’s eyes flashed surprise for only a second before melting into acceptance, and I knew he was thinking of my mother. I really didn’t know what strange things he’d seen my mother do that summer before she confined herself to her bedroom, but it was clear he’d seen something. I was afraid to know what. “Yes, it is.”
Finally, peace. That lasted about one-tenth of a second. Somehow, knowing her name made the burden heavier.
He put his hands up gently, as if motioning a car to a stop in a tight parking spot. “Listen. This isn’t your fault. You couldn’t have done any more than you did. Jocelyn said you were helping her with a situation on the boardwalk.”
I’d been so busy concentrating on what I needed, the mention of Jocelyn surprised me. “She said that?”
He nodded. “Pedro, well … I’ll deal with him separately.”
I cringed at the mention of Pedro. Maybe he thought his mirrored sunglasses could disguise a little catnap, but in my vision, he’d been out like a light, snoring. I could have done something. I could have told headquarters that he was hungover. I could have stayed at my post instead of getting lunch. I could have ignored everything else and arrived at my post five minutes earlier, like I was supposed to. Bill went on about how “these things happen,” but he didn’t see what I saw. It was my fault.
He closed a thin manila file. On the tab, I sawCROSS, NICKin black block letters. “I’m sure a bunch of us will attend the funeral, and you’re more than welcome to—”
“Let me ask you a question.” I leaned forward, took a breath. “If ‘these things happen,’ like you say, and it’s not my fault, then why am I being fired?”
He sighed. “Aw, kid. Look. It’s politics. And you don’t want to be caught in the middle of an invest—”
“I killed her.” I spit out the words. “It is my fault. You can tell them whatever you want, but I could have saved her.”
I wanted to see what else he had written in the file. Maybe Terminated. Crazy as His Mother. But I didn’t want to get punched in the face again. Just the memory of the punch hurt. I flinched at the thought. My mind revved a bit more, like a computer’s hard drive being tested to its limits. I could almost feel the future memories, memories I hadn’t even sorted through, being plucked from my mind. A crease grew at the center of Bill’s forehead. I wondered if my mother had seen that crease.
Shutting my eyes, I spoke. “I want to—” I held out my hands but dropped them to my sides again when I realized they were trembling. My voice was, too. The pain was intensifying by the minute. I crunched down on the words, biting off each one. “I. Need. To.”
In that memory I’d had prior to entering Bill’s office, the one where he’d given the Good Kid speech, his features were a lot softer and, on the whole, more sympathetic. Now he looked disgusted, worn out. “What you need is to go home.
Get some rest. Take a breather.”
“What I need”—my voice cracked—“is …”
I wiped my eye and looked down at my hand. Wet. Perfect. When had I started crying?
He stood up and walked to the edge of his desk. Sat down on it so that his flip-flop dangled off one tanned foot. “Look … it’s not your—”
I closed my eyes again. Clenched my fists. Sometimes I hated people. They didn’t see things the way I did. “You. Are. Wrong.”
He went back behind the desk and began to scribble something on a notepad, all the while saying that he recommended I settle down before heading off, as he put it, “half-cocked.” My mind cycled a little more, so I squeezed my head between my hands and let the memories fall into place.
“Emma. Emma Reese,” I said aloud.We know who you are and what you did and because of you she is dead you killed our Emma
The words lingered in my brain; a man spitting and growling them in such a way that I could feel his breath on my ear and smell something sour and dank, like old milk, on him. The vision that accompanied this was of a vaguely familiar brick ranch house, surrounded by pretty white pebbles. And there was the taste of lemonade. Lemonade and blood. Even though some of the images made no sense, it was clear that they blamed me. Whoever they were.
More cycling.You will …
I tried to green-elephant, but all I could see was a picture of the girl lying dead on the sand, surrounded by a circle of onlookers.
When I snapped back to reality, I realized that Bill had come over to my side of the desk. I found a piece of paper, folded, in my palm. I stood and thanked him. A cool ocean breeze greeted me when I opened the screen door and stepped outside.
The pain in my head subsided.You will pick up your bike, straddle it, then open the sheet of paper in your hand.
I did so, but before I even read the paper, I cringed at what I knew was written on it. Scrawled there were nine words:Get help before you end up like your mother.
I was eight the first time I was called Crazy Cross. It was by a chubby red-haired girl named Carrie Weldon who lived next door and had only a day earlier come over for Oreos and milk. Nan had beamed, excited because I had found a “nice friend,” as she had called Carrie. But the next day, my new nickname was all over the playground. Carrie had told everyone at school that my family was a bunch of monsters.
Until that moment, I’d thought the kids at school were the weird ones for having mothers who would walk them to the bus stop and come to their holiday concerts. To me, that was a job for Nan. Nan was also responsible for feeding me, clothing me … well, basically for everything. She did the same for my mother.
When Bill said, “Get help before you end up like your mother,” he really knew only a part of what being “like my mother” meant. He knew that my mom was a recluse and never left the stuffy second floor of our cottage. Only Nan really understood what was up with my mother and me. Most people would just cross to the other side of the street whenever they saw us coming. They thought we were harmless, but they didn’t want to take any chances. They figured we had something going on, but they weren’t sure what.
I trudged into our house, stuffing the pink sheet of paper from Bill into the pocket of my SPBP Windbreaker. Three months. Three months I’d managed to keep myself together, keep that nice, comfortable future intact. And it was all gone in the blink of an eye. It had been foolish to think I could keep it. My head still throbbed, and I hadn’t yet been able to fully unclench my fists. I kept them in tight balls at my sides. As the door slammed, three competing thoughts popped into my head: spilled milk, clown hair, and Bruce Willis. A You Will sliced through them, and I braced myself for the sound I dreaded.
Immediately, I heard it. Moaning from upstairs. It was the same low buzz of anguish that Carrie had heard ten years ago. Often, it wasn’t bad, and I could block it out. But on the worst days, it nearly drove me mad, echoing in my nightmares.
Nan was playing Journey in the kitchen, which she usually did to drown out my mom. She had a dish towel in her hands, and something that smelled strongly of fish was sizzling in a fry pan behind her, right under a row of tomatoes and cucumbers ripening on the windowsill. She must have been working in the garden today, judging from the circles of dirt on her bare knees. There were bobby pins holding down three almost-fluorescent orange curls at the base of her forehead, over a big, toothy grin. Though the hair was shockingly different, the smile was a constant. You’d think we’d won the lottery with the way Nan smiled all the time.
She caught me staring at her hair and sighed. “Don’t say a word. Must have picked up the wrong color at the supermarket. You know how my eyes are. I’ve already bought new color. I’ll dye it back this week, when I—”
There was a moan, like the hum of an engine. Nan swallowed, but the smile returned, bigger than before.
“How long has she been going on like that?” I asked, even though I already knew. Mom and I were like two sides of a coin. Whenever I cycled, she did, too. Whenever my future spun out of control, her future, which was tied to mine, did, too.
“Since lunchtime. You must have done a doozy.”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to talk about it. Mom moaned again. It made my eardrums rattle. “Why is she so melodramatic? It doesn’t hurt that bad anymore.”
Nan clucked her tongue and turned down the radio. The band, her favorite, was singing something about holding on to a dream. When I was younger, she used to sing the song to me before I went to sleep. She leaned in as if telling me a secret. “You know how your mom thinks. Why just react when you can overreact?”
She said that all the time. Usually it got a laugh out of me, but now I looked at the ground. “Nan, I screwed up something big. A girl died. I killed her.”
She drew in a breath and crossed herself. Her voice was gentle. “Oh, dear. How?”
“I got sidetracked. It looked like someone was in danger, and by the time I finished with her, the girl I was supposed to save had drowned.”
She exhaled. “You didn’t kill her. You just didn’t save her. There’s a difference.”
“I was supposed to be at my post. And Pedro was—”
“You are always too hard on yourself.”
Her words didn’t comfort me. Because I knew the truth. I gnashed my teeth and dug my fingers into my sides just thinking about it. And then there was the words—You killed our Emma—that echoed in my brain. Her parents, I guessed. “Her parents think I killed her.”
Nan’s eyes narrowed. “They told you that?”
I shook my head. “They will. I’m not sure if they know now, but they will. I saw it in my vision.”
“Your vision? Are you sure? It could have been your imagination. Remember Ginger?”
I nodded. Ginger was the puppy I’d been convinced I was going to get when I was ten. I took him everywhere, and I really loved him … but I never got him. He wasn’t real. Sometimes I would think so much about something, want it so badly, I convinced myself that it was in my future. But those were only things I wanted, and I definitely did not want Emma’s parents hating me.
“Don’t let that bother you, honey bunny. I know you did the best you could.” She whipped my thigh with the dish towel. “Get yourself on course. Give her time to breathe.”
She turned back to the stove and started to season the fish. I realized at that moment that the fish would be too salty, but I didn’t tell her. She didn’t want to know the future, and would usually stop me midsentence whenever I tried to explain anything. Plus, Nan’s life was hard enough, since she constantly had to care for us, so I always tried to tread lightly around her. And I’d like to think I was more sensitive to the living because I could taste the grief that would linger after their deaths. My mother and I both knew Nan would die in just over three years. Despite the many cycles we went through day after day, that was constant. Really, there were only two constants in my life: Mom would never leave her bedroom, and Nan would die in her recliner. She would pass away peacefully, of old age, while watching her soaps. Neither of us had told her that, though, because telling her could change the outcome. And my mother and I figured if there was any nice way to die, that would be it.
Another moan. I looked up the staircase.Nan, wait—
It wasn’t even a fragment of a vision that popped into my mind that moment. It was just those words, and an overwhelming feeling that racked my entire body with chills. I grabbed the edge of the counter for support, nearly knocking over a milk jug. As I did, I caught a glimpse of the dusty, faded mural that had been under the cabinets ever since I could remember. It said, Heaven’s a little closer in a house by the sea.
Your past makes you who you are. You might not remember all of it, but even the things you forget can leave a mark. My future did the same to me. Things I hadn’t experienced yet weighed on my brain like bricks. At any one time, those images of my future would lie in wait somewhere in my brain, waiting for something to happen, something that would call them up. A lot of times, they were just pieces. But because I hadn’t experienced them yet, I couldn’t put them in context. They didn’t make sense. Like the one I saw as I began to loosen my grip on the counter.
The image I saw was me, standing in the dark hallway, looking down the steps, screamingNo!In that vision, I couldn’t catch my breath. I’d never felt that pain before. Like everything inside me was being sucked out with a straw.
Definitely not good.
After the pain subsided, I let out a string of curses. I threw the jug to the ground, and milk splattered everywhere. Then I tore at my hair until I heard it ripping at the roots, scraped at the skin on my face until it felt red and raw. I hated myself.
It was stupid to think I could hold on to one future for longer than a few months. But I’d liked that future. I’d liked the way I died in it. I couldn’t remember much after playing in the sand with my grandson; I’d just gone back to the beach house, collapsed into my favorite rocking chair, and drifted off. That memory was like a dream now. Who knew what kind of death I’d have?
I’d screwed everything up.
Nan stared at me, her eyes warm with understanding, though she really didn’t have any idea. She came over and wrapped her arms around me, squeezed me, but I didn’t squeeze back because her bones felt small, breakable, like twigs. The top of her head barely reached my chest, so she had to bend her neck all the way back to look into my eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing,” I answered. Really, it was everything, but my head was still cycling dully, which made even talking hurt.
The lucky and the brave, Bruce Willis, rotting inside.
I helped Nan clean up the stupid mess I’d made. She tried to swat me on the backside with the towel again, but this time I anticipated it and skirted away. I climbed the stairs, which were covered in worn green shag carpet. Since all she had was a measly monthly social security check, Nan hadn’t brought anything new into the house in decades, save for a bunch of crucifixes and worthless statues of saints, which she put on every available surface or wall. All the furniture was from when she was growing up here in the sixties, Formica, with shapes that looked like germs under a microscope everywhere. My sheets had dump trucks and airplanes on them, and the matching curtains were so worn, they did little to block out the morning light. Not that I cared. I didn’t have friends who’d see my room, and I never slept much, anyway.
When I reached her door, there was silence. I stood outside it longer than I had to. Going in there was never fun. I knocked and whispered, “Mom?”, then went inside.
The room was hot and dark and stank of incense and sweat. Mom was lying on her stomach on the bed in boxers and a tank. She’s young as far as moms go. I think she’d be considered a MILF if there weren’t thick dark rings around her eyes that matched the color of her waist-length hair, which was pulled up in a messy loop on top of her head. When I looked at her, I could almost see her resemblance to Nan. They have the same deep-set, fathomless eyes, the same soft, even voice. They laugh the same, boldly, though my mother’s laugh is always tinged with bitterness and irony. They have the same thin lips and I suppose they might even have the same smile, but I didn’t know my mother’s smile. I’d never seen it. I’d always wondered what else she would have in common with my grandmother, had things been different. Would she make great pancakes? Find pleasure in things like gardening and weeding? Go to church every Sunday?
Would she smile?
I kissed the top of her head as she picked up the remote beside her and turned down the volume on the ancient TV set. I looked over at it.Die HardOne or Two, I couldn’t tell which. She was a slave to action movies—they helped take the edge off her cycling.
“Bad day,” I sighed.
Her eyes drooped. “So I felt.”
“I know about the girl.”
“Well,” I muttered, “you can see the future, so that doesn’t make you Einstein.”
She sighed. “Do you feel it, too? Like things are going bad?”
I snorted. A girl was dead because of me. It was hard to imagine life going to a worse place than we were at right then, but yeah, I knew what she meant. It was an odd feeling, as if two totally different sensations were competing within me: hunger with queasiness, anticipation with fear. “But what?” Maybe she’d had time to think about it.
She reached down to the foot of her bed and picked up a copy ofStarmagazine. “My horoscope says this is a terrible day to make changes to the status quo. So you picked one hell of a day to—”
“Sorry.” I snatched the paper from her hands. My mom loves—no, worships—all things unseen. Good-luck charms, horoscopes, superstitions, all that crap. I think that if our seeing the future wasn’t so complicated, like if we could just see one version of the future, and it could never be altered, maybe she would have given it a rest. But as it was, she was constantly consulting the occult.
I turned and surveyed her lunch tray. She’d downed an entire carafe of coffee, as usual, but only taken nibbles of her sandwich. It sometimes pissed me off how well Nan took care of her, and how useless she was in return. Nan shouldn’t have had to deal with that. In the mirror, I could see her settling into her pillow, watching Bruce Willis tiptoeing down a hallway in bare feet and a wifebeater. There were little slips of fortune-cookie fortunes stuck in the edge of the mirror, hundreds of them. Mom didn’t like to toss them away. The one I saw said,Love is for the lucky and the brave.
I shook my head. Luck and bravery were two things that didn’t exactly flow through this house. I thought of the day I learned I had something that made me different. I was four. Nan was making me lunch and I was sitting at the table. I could see the can of grape juice concentrate rolling down the counter and splattering over the linoleum, so I stood there to catch it. If Nan was worried about me, which she must have been, she hid it well. She just smiled and called me her hero. I used to be proud of it. I used to call it my superpower.
“Something with the staircase,” Mom said. “Right?”
I nodded. I’d seen that, and something with blood. But I didn’t want to say it. “But what?”
“I don’t know. I need time to sort it out. Are you on script?”
“It’s strong. A strong, bad feeling.”
I agreed. Blood was rarely a good thing to see in a vision. “Do you want me to go off?”
“Maybe. You have track tryouts tonight?”
“I wasn’t going to go. I don’t think I’m going to make the team. And too much has happened.” I knew what she was thinking even without consulting the script. “You think I should go?”
“Well, it might help change things.”
She took the magazine in her hands and began to page through it. “What’s for dinner?”
It was a running joke between us, asking each other questions we already knew the answer to. When I was a kid I used to spend hours trying to come up with really disgusting answers to the “What’s for dinner?” question, like sautéed horse guts and fried iguana feet, but now I barely smirked. It had been a long time since I’d found it funny.
Sometimes I wish I lived in the Heights. A guy like me could get lost there.
Though it’s just to the south of the Heights, my town, Seaside Park, is like the less popular, more boring twin of Seaside Heights. Both towns are on the barrier islands of New Jersey, a small strip of land surrounded by water. But that’s where the similarities end. Nan calls the Heights the Devil’s Playground. There are bars and amusements and all kinds of riffraff hanging around the Heights. MTV loves the place. People drink and party and go wild there. Freaks are welcome there. They prosper there. A guy who could see his future would not, by any means, be the weirdest thing that town has ever seen.
The Park is a complete one-eighty. It likes the quiet, and prefers to be called family-friendly. The people who planned the town of Seaside Park had very little imagination. For example, it’s split down the center by Central Avenue. One block to the west, you have the Bay, barely a mile wide, and across that, you can see mainland New Jersey. One block to the east, you have the Atlantic Ocean. There is a road that stretches down the bay side called Bayview Avenue, and a road that runs along the ocean called—big shocker—Ocean Avenue. And all the cross streets are either numbered or lettered, so it’s pretty hard to get lost here. Unfortunately. It’s a vacation town, so during the summer, the hotels and apartments fill up and the roads swell with people, but starting in October, the place empties out and tumbleweeds blow through. Then it’s just us regulars, and everyone knows everybody else, and everybody else’s business. Unfortunately.
My high school is on the mainland, in Toms River. But Coach Garner, who has been in the position for forty years, lives on the island, and is about as athletic as a bar of soap, can’t be bothered to go the nine miles inland to the high school to hold tryouts, so every year he holds them on the boardwalk. There are mile markers, but running on boards can be challenging. Still, the view is nice, so people don’t complain.
When I got to Fourteenth Avenue, at the southern terminus of the boardwalk, people I recognized from school were milling about in their singlets and shorts, stretching against the pilings and fence, looking serious. The You Wills told me to go home, to go anywhere but here, but I ignored them and the dull ache they were causing in my head.
The first person I saw when I climbed the ramp was Evan Sphincter. His real name was Evan Spitzer, but when he opened his mouth you knew a bunch of foul crap was going to come out, so I used the other. Not to his face, though.
It took me a minute to recognize him because he looked different, and not in a way that I’d have liked. Maybe it was the tan. No, it was more than that. He’d never been ugly, but he’d never been a movie star, either. His face had always been kind of round, but now his jaw was chiseled. Once upon a time, he’d been kind of thick around the middle, with doughy arms and legs. Now he had muscles. More than muscles. He looked like the spokesperson for home gym equipment. Unreal.
“Hey, Crazy Cross,” he said, reaching down like he was going to help hoist me up onto the boardwalk. But it was all an act. The second I’d reach for his hand, he would pull his away and run it coolly through his highlighted hair. I didn’t have to pay attention to the You Wills to know that. And—highlights? What kind of dude got platinum highlights?
I just said, “Hey,” and pretended I didn’t see him wiggling his fingers at me. His forearm muscles were bigger than my biceps. When the hell had that happened? He’d been a jerkwad since fourth grade, but now he was a built jerkwad. Fantastic.
Sphincter jogged across the boards to his dad, who had a terminally serious face. The guy never smiled. He was holding a stopwatch and looking at it like he wanted to kill it.Runners will make a path for you as you walk to the other side of the boardwalk.
Yep, they parted like the Red Sea. When I turned back toward Sphincter, he was already surrounded by a bunch of hot girls. They swarmed around him like flies. Just completing his journey toward being a total one-eighty from me, I guess. Not that I was jealous or anything. Okay, yeah, I was.
Some guys I recognized from school stretched along the fence, refusing to make eye contact with me and instead checking out the fresh meat. There were a few cute girls, ones I’d never seen before, who might not yet have been aware of Crazy Cross protocol. I was wondering how long it would be before they kept their distance, too, when another memory bubbled through.You will stretch your quads and hamstrings and then you will hear …
I was just starting to relax and stretch my muscles when a tiny redhead’s words floated over on the breeze. “Hear about the little girl who died on Seventh today?”
A guy was with her. He said something about an ambulance.
Then she said, “One of the lifeguards went completely nuts. They had to drag him away in a straitjacket.”
I wanted to slither between the boardwalk planks. “Hey, wait,” the girl said. I turned away but from the corner of my eye saw her pointing in my direction. Whispers were exchanged. “Him?” the guy asked. Then they both laughed. The guy said something that sounded like “Figures.”
Great. At this rate, I’d be lucky to make it out of high school without the words “Crazy Cross” printed under my yearbook picture.
I turned back toward Sphincter and saw him breaking away from the throngs of girls. He strutted right on over to … Oh, perfect. The angel was here. Had she seen the rest of the runners avoiding me like the plague? She was wearing the same thing she’d had on when I saw her earlier today—shorts, a tight tank, and running shoes. Duh, of course she was here, she was a runner. Did she go to my school? How had I never seen her before?
I watched Sphincter put the moves on her. He said something—a joke, probably, by the way he raised his eyebrows and laughed like he was the wittiest scumbag on the planet—and she looked at him and smiled, but politely, not like she wanted him or anything. I was impressed. Most girls would have taken one look at those muscles and jumped in his arms. He said something else and she just kind of shook her head, still smiling graciously, then walked away and started to stretch against the chain-link fence.
No goal, Sphinctie.
Two seconds later I realized I was staring at her with this admiring grin on my face and wiped it off. Had to concentrate on my running.
A few minutes later the tryouts began. Sphincter’s group went first. He bopped and hopped at the starting line on the boardwalk, cracking his neck, all ego, Mr. Showman. Every part of his body screamed,Watch me, watch me. His dad was standing behind the fence, on the beach, in prime position to see every move. They gave each other a thumbs-up, which looked so fake, like the final scene from some cheesy sports movie. I couldn’t believe we’d ever had anything in common. Then, as he lined up among the other runners doing the 100 meter, something came to me.He’s rotting from the inside.
It was a bit of a conversation, but it was so strong I knew it couldn’t be my imagination. I’d never heard it before, so it had to be in the future. And whenever I looked at Sphincter, I felt it so strongly that it had to have been about him. Rotting from the inside? He was the poster child for healthy living. The starting gun went off and he pulled to an easy lead right away, pumping his long legs and smirking the whole while. Rotting from the inside. Yeah.
But then I heard the voice again.You shouldn’t be jealous of that. There’s more to him than you know.
The voice was familiar. It was one I hadn’t heard much of, and yet it was easily recognizable.
The angel. So we’d talk again? She’d want to talk to me after what happened today?
I turned toward her. She was sitting on a bench, not watching the race like everyone else. She was more interested in her fingernails. She inspected her thumbnail, then brought it to her mouth and ripped the top of it off in a sort of savage way. Somehow she made that look cute.There’s more to him than you know.
Well, I knew Sphincter’s life wasn’t a picture postcard. For one, everyone in school talked about his dad. Yeah, it was nice that the guy came to support his son during tryouts, but he was entirely too serious about everything. In most circles, Mr. Spitzer was known as The Sergeant. I don’t think he’d ever been in the armed forces, but it was well circulated how he’d show up at all the meets and give Sphincter hell if he came in second. He’d bring along his stopwatch and argue with the officials and all that good stuff. I’m sure he was just as hard on Sphincter as he was with everything else in his life. So yeah, I wasn’t jealous of that.
Just then, the angel looked up and her eyes found mine. She quickly lowered her hand and the remains of her ragged fingernail, blushing, as I tried to look like I was checking out something behind her. There was nothing but a pile of sand beyond her, though, so as you can imagine, it came off really smooth.
The race ended and Sphincter set a new school record. I was sure he’d done The Sergeant proud. But he’s rotting from the inside, I told myself.
Didn’t really help make me feel better.
If you have this uncanny ability to see your own future, it’s not a good idea to let other people in on it.
After Carrie Weldon moved away, the Crazy Cross thing calmed down. I was nine when I met my first, and only, best friend. He liked me despite my everyday weirdness. Or at least, he tolerated it.
So say you’re nine, and your best friend tells you that he’s going to Disney World with his family and suddenly you realize that if he gets in that station wagon, he’ll never be the same. He’s so excited, parading around in his mouse ears and talking about the Tower of Terror like it’s his life’s purpose, but you just know something bad is going to happen. You can see the vigil at the elementary school, and you know that your grandmother will try, and fail, to hide the newspaper from you, the one with the article about the horrific ten-car pileup on Interstate 95. So you warn him. You scream at him that he can’t go. You even go to his house late at night and let the air out of the tires of his parents’ station wagon.
Of course, doing that means they have to get the wagon towed to the gas station so the tires can be inflated again, and when they do leave, two hours later than planned thanks to some stupid prankster, they arrive in Orlando safe and sound. They have a lovely trip and return home with a slew of pictures and one former best friend who thinks that you are a complete nutcase and never comes within ten feet of you again.
Well, unless it’s to pretend to offer you his hand to hoist you onto the boardwalk.
Evan Sphincter and I used to be best friends. A lifetime ago. Back when he didn’t have rippling muscles that made all the girls line up for him. And okay, maybe it wasn’t just that one incident that forced us apart. There were probably a thousand and one incidents where I acted weird or said something weird or looked weird, and each one drove that wedge between us deeper and deeper.
I tried to be normal. I tried to blend in, to not make waves. But this thing affected me every moment of every day. So I learned not to get too involved with anyone. Every year it got easier. Over time, pretty much everyone had discovered Crazy Cross was not someone to associate with.
I don’t really know why I wanted to go out for track that year. I loved running, and I was damn good at it, but I’d always shied away from organized sports. I guess I thought it was something normal people would do. Like lifeguarding. I think I’d gotten cocky, managing to keep that same future intact for three whole months. Managing to be not just a lifeguard but also a good one. I’d surprised myself this summer. When I’d penciled my name on the sign-up sheet for tryouts, I had this new, invincible feeling, like, I can do this. I thought all that Crazy Cross stuff was finally behind me.
I tried not to think of Emma as I started the mile, but of course I did. I couldn’t shake the vision of her small limbs sprawled on the sand, lifeless.
Anyway, I was a good runner. If I’d been normal, I bet I could have been a great one. I ran steadily, navigating around the few late-day beachgoers with umbrellas and chairs. The other runners lagged behind me; even with the headache from hell, I was on track for a record. I wasn’t even out of breath. A couple of hot girls in bikinis grinned at me. I’m not bad-looking; I’m tall, with thick black hair and an okay build, maybe not as good as Sphincter’s, but I always got looks from girls. After a minute or so, though, my charm wore off. I’d develop a tic or nervously go off in one direction or another, blowing it. This accounted for me being seventeen and never having gotten to second base with a girl. Even my first base was on account of an error; I’d been running on the boardwalk late one night, which I sometimes did to calm my mind, and when I stopped at the fountain to get a drink, a drunk girl must have thought I was her boyfriend because she grabbed me and kissed me.Kissing soft lips, blond curls in my eyes
The image lit a fire under me. My pace quickened even more. It was the second time this afternoon that I’d had that memory. How could that be real? The picture was so strong I got lost in it. I forgot everything, even the simple rhythm of my legs pumping and my feet pounding on the boards. But when I passed the entrance for the Seventh Avenue beach, everything changed. I lost the rhythm. My lungs constricted and burned. The last image I saw was that of the little girl, lying dead on the sand.You killed our Emma
Suddenly, I fell forward, onto my knees, so unexpectedly that I didn’t have time to put my hands out to stop the fall. I smashed my face against the boardwalk. Then I rolled off, onto the sand, gasping and choking.
Coach Garner was a guy who perpetually smelled like Bengay and probably clicked on his stopwatch buttons in his sleep. He’d never run, even if something with large teeth was chasing him. When he stood over me, his beer gut blocked out the sun. “Wow. Just wow.”
I hoped he was talking about how masterfully I’d run that first nine-tenths of a mile.
“That was the most pathetic fall I’ve ever seen.”
Eh. I rolled over and propped myself up on one elbow. Across the way, a bunch a girls giggled at me, but I wasn’t sure if they were part of the regular group of people who giggled at me, or new ones, because my vision was blurred. I looked down and saw blood soaking into my white tech shirt. My knees were dotted with blood and sand and little black splinters.
“So, um, does that mean I didn’t make the team?”
Coach Garner laughed long and loud, like Santa Claus with a sadistic streak, then turned and ambled away without bothering to help me up. I scrambled to my feet, still feeling woozy. Then I tilted my head back and shuffled over to a bench, squeezing my nose, which by this time was seriously gushing. I think bits of major organs were leaking out. Every runner in school was staring at me, and most were laughing their asses off.
“Good one, Crazy Cross,” Sphincter called across the fence to me, flashing me a thumbs-up. He was standing with The Sergeant, who was giving him the ol’ New School Record shoulder rub and watching me like I was a glob of gum in danger of getting on his son’s running shoe.
Rotting from the inside, I repeated to myself, over and over so that it drowned out the next You Will. Screw them.
Before I could sit down, someone came up beside me. At that moment, I knew who it was. My stomach lurched even before I heard her say, “That looks bad.”
I looked up for only a second. She was wearing the same exact expression she’d worn earlier today—a horrified kind of confusion. Was I doomed to always see her every time my head was exploding, or about to? Yeah, that totally explained why she would be kissing me. Maybe that wasn’t part of my future. I’d probably wanted it so bad that I’d just been hallucinating.
“Nah … too … bah,” I said, trying to act casual but feeling the blood course over my upper lip with every word.
She sat down on the bench beside me and handed me a crumpled tissue. I clamped it over my nose, but it was soaked in a matter of seconds.
“You should go to the hospital.”
I waved her away with my free hand. “Naw. I gef nofbleehs all de time.”
“Your knees are bleeding, too,” she pointed out. “And your forehead. And your elbows. Well, just one of them.”
I lowered my head slowly, still covering my nose, and inspected my knees as if that news didn’t completely freak me out. Sure enough, blood was running down my knees, pooling at the cuffs of my socks. Rocky had had it better after his fight with that Russian dude. I pointed to the lifeguard stand. “Well, in that caif, I gueff I’ll go and geh a few Band-Aids.”
She stood up. “I’ll go with you.”
I knew she would offer to come, and that I would protest. By that time, the pain in my joints was getting unbearable. Not wanting to look like a total wimp in front of her was the only thing keeping me from weeping. “Nof nefeffary.”
“Sure it is. You might have a concussion.”
“Naw, I’m fine.”
“That’s what my uncle said after he was rear-ended. And then two days later he nearly dropped dead.”
“Uh …” The last time I’d met her, I’d also told her to leave me alone so she wouldn’t have to witness my breakdown. The script had me accepting her offer and her holding on to my good arm as we limped down the beach. The script had me … Oh, hell. The script had me crying in front of her because it hurt so bad. That kiss had to have been a hallucination. There was no way she’d want to get with me voluntarily after this.
When we stood up, my nose had stopped bleeding, so I didn’t have to squeeze it shut. As we passed some girls, they stared after us. I thought they were just gawking at the dumbass who’d performed his own facial reconstruction, but then a short girl with a pixie haircut called out, “We’ll wait for you by the car if you’re not back by four, okay?”
The girl was looking right at us and there was no one else around, so I guessed they were her friends. She had cute friends, ones I had never seen before. She had to be a freshman, and considering the number of hot girls in that group, a popular one. But the weird thing was, instead of answering, she just kept on walking toward the lifeguard stand.
“Hey, Tar! We’ll wait for you! By the car! Okay?” Pixie called out, a little louder, her voice an octave higher with desperation.
The angel just swung her head back and called over her shoulder, “Fine!” then muttered under her breath, “Whatever.”
Okay. Didn’t know what the hell that was about. They seemed nice enough; some of the other kids nearby reenacted my trip as I walked past them, but one of her “friends,” a tall girl with crazy black hair, called after me, “Take care of yourself.” I really couldn’t think about it, though, because I was beginning to feel light-headed. I blinked a few times, hoping I didn’t lose consciousness from the blood loss.
“Don’t feel bad. I’m a little bit of a klutz myself,” the angel said brightly. I knew she was just saying that to be nice, since her every movement was done with the grace of a ballet dancer. Even when I’d pulled her out of the way of that truck, she’d looked good. I noticed some of my blood had gotten on her bare shoulder, but I felt awkward rubbing it off. In my half-assed state I probably would have grabbed her boob. Sadly enough, that would have been, like, the most action I’d ever gotten from a girl. “And who needs cross-country anyway?”
The script had me completely mute, trying to think of something to say. Finally, I put a sentence together. “You know, you don’t have to be nice to me.”
“What do you mean?” I noticed she had a little accent, one I couldn’t place. Not the annoying kind, but the kind that melts hearts.
“I mean, just because I helped you today. It’s okay.”
“Oh, I know.”
“So, what? Is it Be Nice to Dorks Day or something?”
She laughed. “Are you a dork? You’re not a dork.”
I nodded. “I am. Ask anyone. I don’t have a single friend at the school.”
“That’s not true. You have me.”
“You can have any friends you want. You already have a lot of them. Don’t think you need me. Go be with them. I’ll be fine.”
“Oh, yeah … those guys.” She motioned to the cute girls on the boardwalk and screwed up her face. “Fake, fake, fake. They want things from me. I try to get away from them and they just follow me. It makes me so sick. You don’t, though.”
I tried to figure out what she meant. Just what did people want from her? She seemed to like hearing me tell her to get the hell away. I’d heard girls liked it when guys treated them like crud, something which boggled my mind. I didn’t want to find out that she was one of those stupid girls, so I just said: “It depends on what you have. I accept monetary donations.”
She laughed. Whoa. I’d never said anything that made a girl laugh before. “Do you live around here?” she asked.
“Um. Yeah. Seventh.”
“Oh. I’m in the Heights.”
The Heights was about two or three miles away from Seventh. “That was a long run you were taking this afternoon,” I said.
She shrugged. “Five miles or so.” I was just trying to understand what lunatic would run that far, before tryouts, at the hottest time of the day, when it was over ninety degrees, when she said, “I run because it helps me think. I kind of have a lot to think about.”
I nodded. Couldn’t argue with that.
We reached the lifeguard stand, and I hadn’t cried yet. I was silently congratulating myself for that accomplishment when she said, “You know, you are really brave. I’d be crying.”
I smirked. Actually, she’d taken the edge off the pain, made it tolerable. I realized I wouldn’t be able to shake her; she was planning on coming in with me and watching the lifeguard bandage me up. This girl was harder to avoid than the flu. And there was something about her. Something that just seemed … right. It was all adding up to one thrilling and terrifying realization:
I had a chance with this girl.
Geoff, a lifeguard, ushered me into his seat on the stand when he saw me. He didn’t have the gentle, female nurse’s touch my hormones would have really liked, so when he started to swab up my knee, I winced.
And this girl, this angel, stayed with me the whole time.
I knew I would eventually fall madly in love with her. But I’d had no idea it would start right then.
Twenty minutes later, I walked her back to the street. By then it was pretty dead. The sun was starting to slump in the sky. Most of the late-day beachgoers were gone and her friends weren’t there. It was completely quiet except for the crash of waves, the ping-ping-ping of the flag’s metal hardware striking the flagpole in the breeze, and an occasional screech of a seagull. The angel broke the awkward silence by saying, “Well, I just wanted to say thank you. Um, you know. For saving me this afternoon. You’re my hero.”
I thought of Emma. Yeah, right, me a hero. My lips moved in answer, but nothing came out.
She took in a sharp breath and moved away from my side a little, like she was about to say “See you” and leave. Like most girls did after a minute in my presence. It was like I could almost see any chance I had with her ticking away in those moments. Before she could go, I opened my mouth, still not sure what I would say, so I looked kind of like a fish gulping water. When I asked the question, I realized I already knew the answer. “Uh. So you—you go to Central?”
I cringed at how unsmooth I could be, while at the same time this creeping sensation overtook me. Something about her, about us, was weird. I couldn’t place it, which was why I stared at her with my mouth open, as if trying to pull something out of the far corner of my brain. She didn’t notice. “Yeah. Well, I will be.” She nodded her head a little like a yo-yo. “Just moved here from Maine a few weeks ago.”
“Er. Oh.” My hands were shaking so much I had to lace my fingers together. I’d sometimes had a fantasy—and this was definitely a fantasy, there was no mistaking it for my future—of me being smooth with the ladies, of always knowing what to say and when. I’d practiced those slick phrases over and over again in my head, but whenever I had the opportunity to actually use them, I’d failed miserably. Words would pile up over one another, confused in the jumble of future thoughts passing through my mind. This time, I opened my mouth and one of those cool witticisms came out. It didn’t even sound stilted. “What brings you to Sleazeside?”
She screwed up her face, confused. “Sleaze? Why? I think it’s nice here.”
The momentary sense of victory I’d felt dissolved into a pang of fear over having to speak again. But I handled it well. “Well, it’s not exactly Falmouth.”
“Well, no, but—” She paused. “Wait. How did you know I lived in Falmouth? Did I say that?”
“Um, yeah, you did,” I said, but all the while something began to dawn on me. She hadn’t. And yet I knew. I knew that and … and while she lived there, she liked to go out to the pier at the back of her house and eat peanuts and feed them to the seagulls. She had a red bikini that she never wore because she was always too cold and hated sunburn and sand in her suit, and one day she made the top into a flag and put it on her little sailboat, which she calledThe Mouse, after her first pet hamster she had when she was three.…
Her voice broke through then. “Oh. I guess I did.” I could feel her eyes on me, heavy, like they were cracking through the flimsy disguise I’d set up.
I expected her to run like hell in the other direction. But again, she didn’t. Instead, she plopped down in the sand and motioned me over with her chin. She wanted me to sit next to her. When I walked over, the sun reflected off her eyes; they were almost the color of the sky, so light blue they were almost white. I didn’t say anything as I sat. I was afraid of saying something else about her I shouldn’t have known. I swallowed, thinking of her in that little sailboat.
She filled in the silence. “My dad lost his job at the semiconductor factory, and we had to move in with my grandmother.” She wrinkled her nose. “Gram’s a little whacked.”
She had no idea what whacked could look like.
She was quiet for a moment, sifting sand through her fingers. “I heard what happened here today.”
I reached over, snatched a handful of black witch’s-hair seaweed, and started yanking it apart. “Yeah, it was a bad day.”
“I saw the ambulances. The Reeses are Gram’s neighbors. They live next door to us. She used to sit for …” She trailed off when she saw my body tense. “You probably don’t want to hear this.”
I let out a short laugh. “Bingo.”
She shrugged. “Fair enough. But it’s no wonder you fell. You’re obviously upset. Why did you …?”
“I just wanted to do the normal thing, I guess.”
She snorted. “The normal thing would have been to go home and sleep it off. At least, that’s what I would have done.” I cringed as she said that. Of course I didn’t know what was normal. I couldn’t even pretend to know. “Anyway, it’s not your fault.”
“I know,” I lied, not wanting to talk about it anymore. To her, it wasn’t my fault, but she didn’t know I’d knowingly left an unfit guard in my place.
More awkward silence. I put out my hand, lamely, wondering all the while if that was the way casual introductions were supposed to go, or if I would look too formal, like a bank teller extending her a loan. “I’m Nick.”
She looked at my hand and contemplated it for what seemed like a lifetime. Then she sighed and took only my fingertips in her hand. Her hand was soft, surprisingly cool. Mine felt all sweaty next to hers, and probably not just from the run. “Taryn,” she said, but I knew that already. That she was Taryn was as obvious as a house being called a house or a bird being a bird.
Before I could search for another slick thing to say, something happened. Something big.
My mind went quiet.
No cycling. No You Wills …
Everything. All the future memories. Just gone.
I was too busy trying to figure out what had happened to notice that her smile had disappeared. Her hand trembled, and she wrenched it away from me. It was almost like … could she feel it? No, that was crazy. Her blond corkscrew curls whipped in her face in the ocean breeze, but I could have sworn she mouthed the words “Oh, God.”
Damn. I knew my palms were sweaty, but they weren’t that bad.
“She told me I could feel it when I touched them,” she whispered to herself, looking out onto the horizon. “I didn’t believe … Oh, God.”
I squinted at her. Now who was acting crazy?
As if she’d heard my thoughts, she shook her head, scrambled to her feet, and edged back from me, as if she was afraid. Of me. She said something dismissive like “I’ll see you around” and then turned away.
As I watched her hurry up the beach, toward the boardwalk, my mind began to rev again, whirring until it felt like the bones of my skull would shatter.You will stand and make your way back to the boardwalk, slowly.
And so it began again.
My life was pretty depressing as a whole, but watching Taryn walk away was probably the most depressing thing I’d ever really experienced. My stomach started to churn and then there was this pain—this squeezing pain in my chest. I had an overwhelming desire to run after her, to beg her to stay. In fact, as she walked down the ramp toward Ocean Avenue, I took a few steps after her, stopping in my tracks when I realized I couldn’t do that. She would have thought I was a lunatic. We were practically strangers.
At least, to her, we were.
You always hear those stories. Two people meet, get married, live for decades and decades together. When one of them dies from old age, the other one, though perfectly healthy, falls ill and dies a month later. There’s always some medical explanation, but at the funeral, most people would nod knowingly and whisper that the real cause was a broken heart.
After Taryn left, all the glee I’d felt from finally being able to say more than three sentences to a girl without completely freaking her out deteriorated into this horrible feeling of emptiness. The squeezing pain inside got worse, like my heart was being stepped on. I spent my walk home rubbing my chest and cursing myself for the stupid thing I’d done to drive her away.
Whatever that was. I’d been running, so maybe I stank. I picked up my T-shirt and sniffed. Not so bad. The salt in the air kind of overpowered any other smell. She’d bolted right after shaking my hand, so maybe my palms were sweaty. Maybe she hated calluses. I looked at my palms, then rubbed them against my shorts. Bits of hardened skin caught on the nylon.
Yeah, that was probably it. Driven to a heart attack at seventeen because of my chapped hands. Fitting end to my life.
By that time, I was sick of the constant headache that came with not doing what I was told, so I followed the script home. Two leather-skinned older women in bikinis glared at me from the porch of their stately mansion as I passed them. Though Nan had lived here decades longer than those ladies, they still treated us more like dirt than like neighbors. The only person on our street who talked to us was the cat lady, but that was because with more than a hundred cats, she had her own issues. Our house was the only tiny bungalow on the block, and surrounded by megamansions, so it was dark and overshadowed most of the day. Sunshine never made the mistake of leaking through our windows. When Nan was growing up, all the houses had looked like ours: tiny and cramped, with rotting black shingles. I’d seen pictures. But now it was common practice to tear down the bungalows and build up to the sky to get that priceless ocean view. These monstrosities either had yards filled with millions of perfect smooth white pebbles, or even worse, lawns with grass so green and unnatural it looked spray-painted. To me, those lush lawns were just plain wrong. They didn’t belong here. But I guess from the way those old ladies looked at us, they felt the same way about me.
If people knew we could see the future, they’d probably think we could have had our own mansion. That we could have had a lot of things, if we wanted them. One night, I was sitting in front of the television watching the Pick-6, and I said every number two seconds before the ball shot out of the popcorn popper. Of course that gave me an idea. I thought I could stretch it, so that I saw the Pick-6 numbers early enough for Nan to buy a ticket. But the thing was, I couldn’t. Things like Pick-6 numbers were short-term memory. The numbers only occurred to me a few seconds before they were drawn. Before that, they were lost in the muddle of outcomes competing in my head. Besides, Nan was dead against using our power for profit. Every time I thought of a way, she’d just roll her eyes. “We’re perfectly comfortable,” she’d say, looking out the kitchen window, past the plump red tomatoes ripening on the sill. “Besides, money is the root of all evil.” Nan was like a brick wall when it came to certain things, and this was one of them. Eventually, I stopped asking, though she would never get me to believe that only evil stemmed from money. Some good came out of it, too. Like a new iPod. Or running shoes with treads that hadn’t been worn so smooth that running sometimes felt like ice-skating.
My muscles and head hurt as I climbed the steps, and once again I couldn’t tell if the pain was from the fall on the boardwalk or some horrible future memories swirling in my head, waiting to be unleashed from my subconscious. The thing clearest in my mind, besides the unraveling of the script, was Taryn. Somehow, everything I knew about the future disappeared when I’d touched her hand. Somehow, she already meant so much to me that my chest ached for her, even though we’d only met a few hours ago. As I opened the screen door, one clear thought stood out from all the others rattling around in my head: there was something different about her, and I had to find out what.
Nan lay in her silver-blue pleather recliner. It had a combo of red plaid dish towels and packing tape over the arms to hide the rips there. She kept the packing tape on the card table nearby since a new rip sprang up every time she sat in the chair. It was the same recliner she’d pass away in. She was watchingWheel of Fortune. Okay, not really watching. Snoring and staring at Pat Sajak with one glazed eye. Behind her, on the kitchen table, was a plate covered with foil.
I pulled off the wrapping and, not finding a fork nearby, tore off a ragged piece of whitefish and popped it in my mouth. The salt stung my tongue. Gagging, I found a Coke in the fridge and downed most of it in one swallow. Funny how my knowledge of the future never seemed to protect me from things like that.
Then I heard my mother upstairs, the creaking of her mattress springs. She couldn’t understand why I tried to live a normal life. She thought that in order to truly control her own destiny, she had to remove herself from everything. And I guess it worked, somewhat. It never really mattered what she did in her room; because she always did the same things, like clockwork, it very rarely affected me in such a way that I would cycle. If she did go off script, say, choosing to watchDie Hardinstead ofGladiator, it didn’t change her or my future a heck of a lot. But she had learned that even confinement didn’t make her immune to pain. If it was up to her, she’d isolate all of us. I could still remember being four years old, and my mom holding me to her chest. Sobbing. Just stay here, Nicholas. Stay with me. It’s the only safe place.
She saw that loft bedroom as her sanctuary. I saw it as a coffin.
I’d even told her that, once, a year or two ago. “It just became too much,” she’d told me. As if I hadn’t seen her and Nan and so many others die over and over again. As if I hadn’t lost enough. I didn’t care. No way was I becoming a hermit. Not if I could help it.
Just then, Nan turned to me, still bleary-eyed. “Oh, honey bunny. What happened to you?”
“Nan, the weirdest thing happened to me after tryouts,” I said, ignoring her question. “My mind … stopped.…”
“And so why do you look like you just took a beating?”
I’d totally forgotten, but the second she mentioned it my wounds began to sting. “I fell.…” I tried to explain, but as I stared at Nan, my mind went into overdrive, forcing the script to the background. It revved for a second, and in that second I stopped talking, the memory popped into my head. A memory of the future.
Of Nan. With that halo of clownish orange hair. Lying in fetal position at the bottom of the loft staircase, surrounded by broken plates and what was likely the remainder of Mom’s breakfast.
Her head was perfectly encircled by a large pool of blood.
“Nan!” I shouted instinctively, as if the danger was only seconds away.
She startled and kicked up the recliner. Her eyes ran over my body, probably looking for bleeding wounds.
I slunk backward, feeling guilty. She had diabetes and high cholesterol and all the other things that went along with enjoying food too much; I could have given her a heart attack. And for what reason? The vision could have been of tomorrow, the next day … who knew? I knew it would be soon, because in that vision, her hair was still the wrong color, that neon orange she’d accidentally dyed it. But it wasn’t going to happen right now. “Uh, nothing. Uh. Have anything for dessert?”
Her eyes narrowed for a second, then softened. She’d long since given up on trying to figure me out. “There’s a new half gallon of Turkey Hill ice cream in the freezer.”
I opened the freezer door and took the ice cream out.
“That fish was plain awful, wasn’t it?” she called into the kitchen. “I don’t think I’ve ever fouled up so bad in all my life.”
“It was okay,” I muttered, thinking, Just wait.…
I trudged upstairs intending to take a shower but stopped as I was gathering my towel and things and threw them against the shower curtain. My toothbrush made a little chip in the ceramic on the tub, almost a perfect square. I sat there for the rest of the night staring at it, resisting the script, which kept telling me to get myself clean. It hurt like hell, but I’d fight everything that was in the script, with every ounce of strength that I had. That useless, piece-of-crap script that was leading Nan to an early death.
I awoke the next day, knowing I wouldn’t follow whatever the script had laid out for me. It had me hanging around the house, moping about Emma and feeling guilty. But that could wait. Now, more than ever, I needed to try to throw the future off course.
The clues from my memory told me that Nan had fallen down the stairs while bringing—or taking away—my mother’s breakfast tray. So I decided that I would have to do it. But I met my mom at the top of the stairs. For the first time in I don’t know how long, she was out of bed. She was wearing slippers and a flannel robe despite the early-morning temperature being at least eighty.
“I’ll eat downstairs,” she said, brushing past me.
“Wha?” The shock made me lose my vocal capacity.
“What?” she asked, turning and staring at me like I was the one who’d suddenly decided to make an appearance on the lower level of our house after years of seclusion in my bedroom. “This is my house, too.”
Sure it was, but I could count on one hand the number of times she’d come downstairs in my lifetime. I think the last time, the house was on fire. “You know about Nan,” I said as I set the tray down on the kitchen table.
She took a bite of her toast. “Yes.”
“If you eat downstairs, that ought to fix it.”
She shrugged. “Fix one thing, another breaks. I’m so tired of this.”
“I know, but we can’t let this go.”
She nodded slowly. “So did that change things?”
I tried to think of Nan’s death. There she was, lying at the bottom of the stairs. “No.”
My mother squeezed her eyes closed. “How could it not? I said I was going to eat all my meals downstairs, so—”
I concentrated on the picture in my mind. Then I noticed that the remains of my mother’s meal were no longer surrounding Nan’s crumpled, fragile body. So she would still fall, just not carrying the tray. Great. My mother must have noticed that at the same time I began to say, “It doesn’t matter. She still—”
“Still what?” Nan appeared in the kitchen. She took one look at the burnt eggs and toast I’d made for my mom and smiled. “To what do we owe the pleasure of you cooking, honey bunny? And why are you downstairs, Moira?”
“How could you tell it was my cooking?” I asked, but I knew the answer the second I asked. I burn everything.
“You burn everything.”
It was true. I never cooked because every time I got the urge to, I’d think forward to the vile end result and give up. Nothing about being able to see my future could stop me from sucking at cooking. Actually, it didn’t stop me from sucking at a lot of things.
Mom and I looked at each other. She nodded. She understood the plan.
That was the cool thing about us both being able to see our futures. Sometimes we could have whole conversations without them ever taking place. In my head, I saw Mom pulling me into the living room, telling me, Well, we need to change things up as much as possible. Go off script. And I said to her, I have been, but it’s not helping. She said, Well, we just need to change the right thing. It could be something really small. She grabbed her head just then, so I said, But how will you take it? Because I know her headaches are way worse than mine when the cycling starts. At least, her moaning and carrying on is way worse. And she said, I don’t know. I have to try.
I nodded back. But the flipping had already started and my head was beginning to ache. This was going to be a long day.
I burst outside into the humid air and gulped it in like a fish. It was already late morning; my lifeguarding job would have had me on the stand at the Seventh Avenue beach for a full hour by now. I didn’t miss it. I wasn’t cut out for lifeguarding, and at least now, any more Emma Reese incidents wouldn’t be my fault.
Holding my head to stop the cycling, the You Wills that were compelling me to turn back and go straight to bed, I headed toward the Heights. I tried to convince myself I was wandering aimlessly once I got up there. But I wasn’t. In truth, I was looking for platinum corkscrews. I scanned each car in every driveway for Maine license plates.
Crazy, right? After all, I needed my gift, my power, or whatever you call it, more than ever now. I needed to figure out how to stop Nan’s death. I shouldn’t have been trying to seek out a girl who, whenever I touched her, made all the visions go away.
But for some reason, I couldn’t stop myself. All night long, instead of green-elephanting, I’d thought of her instead. Even the thought of her quieted things. She was my green elephant.
As I rounded the block onto Lafayette Avenue, I stopped.
Almost like an oasis, she was sitting there, on the porch of a little bungalow even smaller than Nan’s, staring at her feet as if engaged in some serious thinking. Somewhere between the You Wills sputtering through my mind ran the thought that I should turn around, leave, go anywhere away from her. But I was only half listening to the You Wills. I ran across the street, remembering too late about traffic. A VW Bug screeched to a halt and a brunette in sunglasses gave me a deadly glare, then lay on her horn with a sneer. Taryn looked up, and I realized she wasn’t in the midst of contemplating the meaning of life. She had a bottle of red polish next to her and was carefully applying paint to each of her toenails.
The look she gave me wasn’t much happier than the VW driver’s. I considered backing away, but only for a second.
“Sorry if I offended you.”
Guy Law says nice dudes finish last. Girls like guys who ignore them, who tell them to get the hell away. She clearly didn’t want me apologizing. She raised one corner of her upper lip in a part snarl and said, “You didn’t,” as if I really had but she was so disgusted she didn’t want to waste any more of her precious breath.
“Then what’s up?” I asked.
Guy Law also says that when a girl’s pissed off at you, prying out the “why” is like brain surgery. Again, totally right. She said, “Nothing,” and continued to paint her dainty toenails. I moved closer, but she didn’t like that. She jumped to her feet and tottered, pale toes raised, up the staircase to her front door. “Look. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t talk to people like you.”
She made it sound like I had a disease. “People like me?”
“You know,” she whispered. “Touched.”
I reeled back, feeling the rejection swell everywhere, from the tips of my toes to my head. Even the new girl, a girl with whom I’d managed to have what I thought was a somewhat normal conversation, thought I was a nut job.
“But get this,” I said, trying to keep my voice even, but it was coming out as a defeated mumble. “I have this problem. But all of a sudden, when I touched you, this thing I’ve had my entire life is … just … gone.”
“I’m sorry, really I am, it must be horrible, but—” She turned to me and drew in a breath, then finally looked me in the eye for the first time today. I expected her to ask a question as to what the problem was, so her next words took me by surprise.“Wait. You’ve had it your entire life?”
I nodded, then felt the need to explain. “Yeah, you’re really not going to believe this, but—” But what? I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t tell anyone. I thought of how nine-year-old Sphincter had looked at me when I explained he was going to die. I clamped my mouth shut so fast and hard that I bit my tongue.
“Your entire life?” She murmured it more to the ground than to me. “What are you talking about?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “It’s just—there’s something about you that …” Okay. Clearly it was impossible to explain why she was different without explaining whyIwas different. And I couldn’t do that. I threw my hands down. “Forget it.”
She bit her lip. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“Welcome to my world,” I muttered, turning away.
“You’re Touched, right?”
I turned back around, narrowing my eyes, frustrated. “Touched?”
Just then, a figure appeared behind the screen door. I could see dark, cavernous eyes, like the empty sockets of a skull, and a pyramid of silvery black hair. In the shadows of the porch’s overhang, her skin shone a cold, metallic bronze. She had on a flowered blouse, but they were not cheerful flowers. They looked brown and dead. Actually, her entire presence had an air of death to it, especially those eyes and that mouth, which bore no expression. Her mouth was just a lifeless gash in her brown face. This was the grandmother Taryn had mentioned yesterday on the beach. The “whacked” one. Instinctively, I took a step back.
Her voice was deeply accented; Italian, maybe. “Who is this?” she asked, her eyes never leaving mine.
Taryn turned toward the woman and whispered tensely, “He’s one of them.” She said the last word as if there was a war going on, and I was on the other side. Then she shrugged. “I think.”
Grandma opened the screen door, came outside. Her eyes were so fastened on mine, I had to look away. I saw then that her ankles and wrists were just as thick as the rest of her body, like tree trunks. And that in one of her meaty hands, she was holding a … freaking butcher’s knife.
Another step back. Suddenly I was shivering, despite the near-ninety-degree heat.
Her eyes narrowed to slits. “What’s that you say,sevgili?” she snapped.
I wasn’t sure who she was addressing, but I wasn’t capable of speech at that point, either way. Taryn finally answered, “You’re right. I felt it, just like you said. I saw what he has.”
Her grandmother’s eyes narrowed even further. “Impossible! Not this one.”
Taryn looked confused. “But I saw it. I—”
“No,” the woman growled. I could see why Taryn didn’t get along with her. She was about as much fun as the flu. This woman had a freaking knife and was waving it over Taryn’s head as if getting ready to slice a Thanksgiving turkey. If that wasn’t God telling me to just play the hand I’d been dealt and go away, I didn’t know what was.
“But he—” Taryn protested.
“I’ve never seen this boy before in my life!” Old scary woman was getting vicious. This was not good.
The You Wills had me turning around and running in the other direction, and I knew I was supposed to go off script, but this time, I couldn’t agree with them more. “Sorry,” I said, holding out my hands. “Sorry. I mean, I still don’t know what the hell you guys are talking about. But I’m just going to go. Now.”
Taryn’s expression was guarded, remorseful. Remorseful for what? Meeting me? Having to send me away? I couldn’t tell. As I mentioned, I sucked at reading girls. But I didn’t have any problem reading her grandmother. She waved the knife some more and spat out: “You never come back, you hear me? Never!”
Oh, don’t worry about that, crazy lady.
By the time I made it back to Seventh Avenue, my brain was revving like a sports car. But that was good. The more I cycled, the better the chance I’d change Nan’s death back to that peaceful one I’d envisioned once before. And I would just have to forget about that brief moment with Taryn. That moment when for once in my pathetic life, I was just like everybody else.
When I returned from getting reamed out by Old Scary Lady, I thought I’d just go and hang out at the Tenth Avenue beach, away from the Seventh Avenue regulars who would undoubtedly stare me up and down after what happened yesterday. Work on evening out my tan, since the lifeguard uniform’s tank top had left me a lot paler on my chest and stomach. Sort out some of those messed-up visions I’d been having. Try to find what would prompt Nan to fall and somehow remove the problem.
Instead, the cycling just made for the kind of headache a cartload of Excedrin couldn’t fix. That was the problem with going off script: once I went off, a thousand jumbled next-steps in my life began to compete for attention. I tried to concentrate on the waves, the sand, the sea, which had always calmed me before. Now, every crashing wave whispered Emma’s name, and when seagulls cried overhead, it sounded like they were proclaiming my guilt. I couldn’t focus for a second on the mystery surrounding Nan’s death. The only sane thought I could make out was a picture of Taryn. Touched, she’d called me. What was that supposed to mean?You will be annoyed by the greenhead flies. You will stand up, fold up your towel, and put on your T-shirt.
It was a west wind, too, so the greenhead flies were biting. West winds sucked; they meant cold water and flies so vicious and determined, most tourists ran away crying. But I was a local. I could handle it.Rrrrrvvvvv, went the gears in my mind. Meanwhile, an insect feasted on my skin and drew blood on my forearm. Pressing one finger into my temple, I swatted the fly away with my other hand. The nasty thing came back to my foot. Once a fly found its target, the only thing that could tear it away was death. I swatted it again, watching an old lady down the hill applying Skin So Soft, and remembering how Nan used to slather me in that stuff when I was a kid. It smelled like old lady, but it kept the flies away. When the persistent little bugger landed on my knee, I smacked it, and its crushed body tumbled to the sand. The victory was short-lived; when I flicked its little corpse away, two more flies appeared in its place.You will start getting bored, so you will stand up, fold up your towel, and put on your T-shirt.
Actually, I told myself, I’m not really that bored. I could hang a few more minutes. I need to think.
Rrrrrvvvvv, went my mind.You will be annoyed by the children playing tag nearby, kicking sand on your legs. You will stand up, fold up your towel, and put on your T-shirt.
No, I can handle those kids. I’ll just hang out here a little while longer … and think.…Rrrrrvvvvv …You will think about standing up and leaving but you will not. A Frisbee will hit you in the head.
What? I scrambled to my feet and tried to get over the cycling that had my mind whirring and my head pounding. More nonsensical images flashed through my brain, which might or might not have become part of my future: pine needles, goopy black tar, a pink smiley face, brown craft paper.
Then, clunk. The Frisbee bounced off my shins. I screamed, unfortunately like a girl, in front of two hot chicks in bikinis. They laughed at me mildly, like I was a bad entertainer planted there for their amusement, and rolled over onto their stomachs.
That was it. Thinking was barely possible on script. How could I expect to analyze the situation with all those possible options whirring in my head like chain saws? Yes, there were bad things in my future, things I somehow couldn’t change or prevent, but maybe I just wasn’t meant to. After all, that was what the future was like for most people.
But Nan …
Finally I trudged through the sand toward the street, noticing the girl in the yellow bathing suit with the pink smiley face on her round tummy. She was probably Emma’s age.
Crap. Step one: I needed to get away from the beach. From everything that reminded me of that little girl.
Nan used to have a boyfriend who would take me fishing off the pier at Fifth Avenue. That would always calm my mind, kind of like the ocean once had. I needed calm. I didn’t want to go home and listen to my mom’s moans of pain from the cycling. My head ached like there were a thousand needles in my scalp, and I knew she was feeling just as bad. Probably worse.
Almost without thinking about it, I found myself at the bait shop, getting minnows. I must have stopped by the garage to pick up the net, bucket, and poles, but I couldn’t remember doing it. I held them in my hands, so tight I knew I’d probably get blisters, and they smelled like brine and old seaweed. The guy at the register gave me a careful smile as he handed over the roll of bait wrapped in brown craft paper: a smile because he’d known Nan for fifty years; careful because every local on the island had heard the Crazy Cross stories.
I was so deep in the thought that I didn’t realize how quiet my mind had become until I heard a sweet voice whisper, “What did you get?”
I turned and saw Taryn. Not two hours after her grandmother gave me the tongue-lashing of my life, not two hours after I promised myself I’d never see her again. She was smiling as if that conversation never happened, as if she hadn’t called me one of the despicable “them.”
I should have been able to say something tough, something to show her that she’d made a huge mistake telling me to leave her alone. Instead, all I could mutter was “Huh?”
She pointed at the board over the counter. “I was going to get a number eleven. The Italian. But number six looks good. And then there’s number twenty.”
I looked up at the board above the head of the guy at the register. It might as well have been in Chinese. I never bought subs here. “Uh—”
“You’re the local.” She pointed at the paper-wrapped roll in my hands. “So I’ll let you make the decision for me.” She turned to the guy behind the counter. “Give me whatever you got him.”
I grinned slowly. Revenge.
At the guy’s confused look, I said, “You heard her.”
He got busy packaging up her “sandwich,” as Taryn gave me a shy glance that made me a little remorseful for what I was doing. Just a little. I’d shaken it off, when suddenly my nose began to sting. Out of nowhere, I thought of pine trees.
She asked, “What’s in it?”
I pressed my lips together. “It’s a surprise.”
“No anchovies, I hope.”
I shook my head.
She quickly peered over the counter at the worker. “Oh, and make mine without onions.”
He looked at me, even more confused.
I shook my head at him. “Doesn’t come with onions.”
“Oh, good.” She looked down at her toes, the nails of which were now painted bloodred, a striking contrast against the paleness of her skin. I had the momentary vision of those pale toes against a backdrop of black-green water. “I’m allergic.”
“Um,” I began, focusing on a rack of chips and pretzels behind her head, a display of car air fresheners shaped like pine trees dangling near the register, not sure where I was headed. “Fancy meeting you here.”
The shy look returned. “I heard this place had the best subs in town.”
I shrugged. As if I had any idea.
“Really,” she said, as if she had just been caught in a lie. Then she smiled. “Actually, no, I followed you in here.”
Too good to lie. God, I was liking her more and more. And she was not what I needed right now. What I needed was to find out what was going to happen to Nan, and try my best to prevent it. Alarms were blaring in my head, but instead of helping me, they were crowding out the You Wills, allowing my hormones to take control. All I could do was raise my eyebrows and savor this new thrill surging through me. It was the first time a girl was admitting to following me instead of running in the other direction.
“I wanted to apologize,” she began.
“Order up,” the man behind the counter said. He pushed the package over to her.
I took it before she could put her hand on it. “Allow me,” I said.
She grinned. “Seriously? Thanks.”
It was the least I could do. “It’s nothing.”
As I paid for the two packages, she inspected the net, poles, and bucket at my feet. When I collected my change, she said, “Look, do you have time?”
I stared at her. Time? Did she want the time? I pointed to a clock on the wall.
She shook her head. “No, do you have time for a talk? I want to explain things.”
“Things? You mean the”—I stretched out my hands and wiggled my fingers—“touch?”
“Fine,” I said, but then I realized that if I had to be present when she opened that wrapped package, it wouldn’t be pretty. Didn’t need a vision of the future to know that. She might sic her scary grandmother on me. “After lunch? I’ll be at the pier.”
“Great,” she said, chewing on her lip. “Again, I’m sorry for acting a little crazy, but you don’t know … well, I’ll explain it. After lunch.”
She started to shuffle down the stony path in her flip-flops, cradling the fish in the crook of her arm, and then turned. “You really have no idea why you’re the way you are,” she mused. “That’s fascinating.”
“What way am I?” I asked, amused by her attempt to understand me. Most people wouldn’t bother. There were so many easy ways to fill in that blank. Neurotic. Looney. Obsessed. Pathetic.
She narrowed her eyes. “Duh. Able to see your future.”
I was too stunned to follow her. I just stood there, surrounded by my fishing gear, mouth hanging open.
I spent the rest of the time walking back and forth on the boardwalk, feeling like crap. This was useless. First of all, when I got out there, I realized the reason my nose had begun to sting in the sub shop. It would be fried by the time I got home, but I didn’t have enough money with me to buy sunblock. And every time I set out to cast a line, I saw the outcome of my expedition. No fish. It wasn’t that they weren’t biting. It was that my hands would be shaking too much to steadily reel in the line.
And Taryn somehow knew I could see the future.
All my life, I’d been hiding it from people, doing whatever I could to throw them off. I’d always wanted to have someone understand what was going on with me, but I knew that if I told, they’d never believe it. Or if I showed them what I could do, they’d be so freaked they’d run far away or summon men in white coats to take me to a laboratory for a lifetime of painful tests. But she believed it. She sought me out. And not only that, she acted like it made total sense.
Of course I always wondered why my mom and I were like this. There are pictures in the house of my mom when she was in high school. She was a cheerleader and on the debate team, and you could just tell that back then she was normal. She didn’t have the dark circles. She didn’t have the worry creases on her forehead. Nan said she “got it” around the same time I was born, whatever “it” was. I assumed it was me. Something about being pregnant with me. My mother would always say it had something to do with my dad, but she’d shut up whenever I tried to pry more out of her. I didn’t know who he was, but maybe he had something in his blood. Maybe he poisoned us.
But that was a long time ago. I’d never met my dad, never wanted to. And yeah, there was always something tugging at me, some hole begging to be filled. But he clearly couldn’t fill it. By the time I realized that he existed I was old enough to know that if he didn’t want to be in the picture, I didn’t want him there. I figured he probably saw me like everyone saw me. A freak.
That was my own father. So how could this girl I barely knew not see me that way?
“What is it like?” a voice said gently as I sat there, legs dangling over the side of the pier, staring at the ripples in the brown bay.
I knew she would be coming back, even after she found the fish in her “lunch.” I knew she would sit down next to me and her red toenails would glisten in the sun, against the backdrop of dark water. I knew her hair would smell like apples. “How was lunch?”
She wrinkled her nose. God, she was cute. “Great. Thanks.”
I didn’t apologize. The last time I did that, she told me to go away. I just sat there, feeling my nose baking and wondering if it was already stoplight-red. “Are you going to tell me how you knew?”
“Don’t you already know that? I mean, if you can see—”
I snorted. “You’d think.”
“So, like, do you know what’s going to happen right now?”
I shook my head. “No. Well, yeah. I knew you were going to ask that. But the further you go into the future, the more fuzzy things get. Because little things in the future change—you know, the butterfly effect. So I can see pieces of everything that could have happened, all the outcomes based on where I am at a certain moment. And at first, they all fight against each other, so I can’t tell which is real and which isn’t. After I stay on script for a while, it becomes clearer. I can figure out what’s real and what’s not. But it’s really hard to stay on script.”
She gasped. “On script? How do you—”
“You can remember best the things you just did, right? I can remember best things that are right about to happen. They’re more real to me. I call it my script. My You Wills. You know, you will start running. You will fall and smack your face against the pavement.…”
“Script? So wait. You actually see the phrase ‘You Will’ in your head, like in a real script?”
I shake my head. “No, I see myself doing those things in my head. If I stay on that script, my mind doesn’t get clogged up with lots of possibilities. It just stays on one future. But if I go off script, even a little—”
“So that day when we met, you were—”
“According to the script, I was supposed to save that girl. Emma. I saw myself saving her. Instead I met you. And my mind went haywire with all the new outcomes.”
She stared at me, uncomprehending at first. I saw the moment it made sense to her, because her breath hitched. “Oh, my God. Really?”
“Yeah. And now something’s going to happen, and I have to fix … Oh, forget it.” I’d never explained this to anyone, and it felt so foreign coming out of my mouth. Unbelievable, even to me. “Did you make the team?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
She nodded. “You?”
“Nah. Probably better if I’m not on it. I’d know when we were going to lose and just drag down team morale.” I meant it as a joke, but it came out bitter and sad.
She stared into the water for a minute. “Well, why did you even bother trying out? You must have known you were not going to make the team, right?”
I shook my head. “You would think. But it’s like this: think of the last movie you saw.”
“Are you thinking of it?”
She said it so quickly and dismissively I thought there was no way she could be thinking of it. Without even realizing I was doing it, I said, “Wow,The Little Mermaid? Seriously?”
Her eyes grew wide for a second, then she glared at me. “I babysit a lot. How did you know that?”
“I can do it sometimes. If I have something concrete to focus on, I can just go forward into our future to where I find out what I need to know.”
Her jaw dropped. “You can do that?”
“Yeah. Sometimes. I mean, I can’t go too far into the future. A couple of minutes at most. Anyway, back toThe Little Mermaid. Do you remember all the lines, everything that happened?”
“Yes.” When I raised my eyebrows, she smiled. “Like I said, I babysit a lot. I’ve seen the movie four hundred times.” Then she began to sing, “ ‘Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat. Wouldn’t you think my collection’s—’ ”
“All right. But with movies you’re not secretly obsessed with—”
“I’m not obsessed!” There was a small smile playing on her lips as she punched my arm. “Right. I only remember the really big things that happen.”
“Right. Or the dialogue or action or whatever that really hit home or meant something to you. Or just random things, pieces of the whole. But if you hadn’t seen the entire movie, and you just saw that random thing out of context, you’d be a little confused, right? That’s what I see. So no, I had a strong feeling, but I didn’t know for sure I wasn’t going to make the team. I guess it didn’t matter to me so much. I remember the things that matter more.”
She nodded. “Oh.”
I took a breath and suddenly I saw red velvet, like from a tent. A gypsy tent, like the ones on the boardwalk in the Heights. Taryn was standing there, beckoning me into the tent. Then, Old Scary Lady at a table, surrounded by red velvet. “Your grandmother is a fortune-teller on the boardwalk? Seriously?”
She gave me a severe look, like it was nothing to laugh about, and it was only then I realized I was kind of laughing. Because the fortune-tellers on the boardwalk were all old crackpots who were so senile they didn’t remember their own names. Only idiot tourists went to them. Of course Old Scary Lady was a fortune-teller. It totally fit.
“Well, why not?” Taryn said. “Hey, you shouldn’t knock it. She makes a good living. You could probably make a killing doing it.”
I shook my head. “I can only see my own future. And I don’t even see that very well. Like I said.”
“Oh.” She bit her lip, another one of the cutest little mannerisms I’d ever seen on a girl. “She’s not a fortune-teller, anyway. She’s a bibliomancer.”
“She can tell a person’s future by passages in certain books.”
“Passages in books? Sounds shady.”
“It’s an ancient practice,” Taryn said. “Dates back to medieval times, or so my grandmother says.”
I raised my eyebrows. “So, like, what does she do? Open up a book and just tell a person’s future from it? How does that work?”
“Well, it’s a little more scientific than that. Most bibliomancers use the Bible, but my grandmother has people bring in their own books. Whatever book they like best.”
I laughed. “I’m partial to Dr. Seuss. Can she do it withGreen Eggs and Ham?”
It was like I was floating above my body, unable to stop myself. I didn’t even have to touch her to be at ease; just being near her made my mind calmer. Yeah, the script was still there, but muted, not so insistent. I was in danger of getting entirely too comfortable with her. Never had the one-liners come so easily to me, never had I felt so witty. Somehow, I was getting cocky again. She had that effect on me, I guess. But bad things had a way of happening whenever I got cocky. The script suggested politely to me to be quiet, and I agreed, stifling the laughter remaining in my throat.
She gave me a look that said she wasn’t happy with me taking it so lightly. Like she actually believed in that kind of crap. Then she picked through her beach bag. “Look, I’ll show you how it’s done. Pick a number between, say, um, one and fifty.”
“Look, I really don’t need any more help seeing my future, thanks.”
“It’s just a demonstration,” she said, producing a worn paperback.
I couldn’t see the title, but I could see a man and woman locked in an embrace, bare skin everywhere, on the cover. “Wait, you’re going to tell my future using”—I reached for the book and stared at its cover—“Sins of Tomorrowby Rebecca Stanhope? Epic.”
She turned a flattering shade of red. “I said, it’s just a demonstration. And it’s a very good book, despite the cheesy cover. Don’t make fun until you’ve read it.”
“Okay. Can I borrow it from you?” I said, studying the back cover. Something about a young woman who loses the love of her life in the war and then, after marrying another dude, discovers her first love is alive! He has amnesia and has no idea who she is, but “can her undying love rekindle the flame of their passion?” That’s what it said on the back cover. Definitely epic.
“When I’m done.” She stood and said, more insistent this time, “Pick a number.”
She closed her eyes and threw the book into the air. It landed on the boards on its back cover. “Wait.” She ran to it, picked it up, and did it again, with the same result. Then she did it again. It landed on its front cover this time. She sighed. “It’s easier with a hardcover. It’s supposed to land on an open page. Oh, well, let’s just pretend it landed on page … um …”
“Two-ninety-three?” I offered.
“Yes. Great.” She flipped the book open. “And starting with line twelve, it says, ‘ “Oh, Holden,” she murmured, as her kisses trailed down to …’ ” Taryn stopped and looked up, her face redder than ever.
“So what does that mean?” I asked, trying to keep a straight face. “Am I going to get it on with some guy named Holden?”
She stomped her feet on the boardwalk, but because she was so tiny and wearing rubber-soled flip-flops, it didn’t have any effect. “It. Is. Just. A. Demonstration!” She threw the book down again and this time it skittered toward the edge of the pier. I lunged to the side as it was happening and it landed in my waiting hands. “Saw that, did you?” she began, astonished by my foresight, and for a second, I felt proud of myself. Maybe even a little cocky. But it only lasted a second. The next thing I knew, I saw what was going to happen, clear as day.You will lose your balance and fall backward into the water.
Damn. I couldn’t steady myself in time. I tried to save her book as I splashed into the bay, but it was no good. The water was over my head.
The water was slimy and gross, and fingers of seaweed entwined themselves around my toes. I surfaced, hair over my eyes, spitting out a mouthful of salty green water, then stroked as quickly as I could toward the rickety wooden ladder. Crabs that had been feasting on my bait were probably now looking at my ankles. “Are you okay?” I heard Taryn ask. When I wiped the veil of hair away, she was bending over the side of the pier, looking worried, either for my safety or for her reputation, being seen with such a spaz.
Did I say I felt cocky? Suddenly I felt like a spider must, trying to scurry up the side of the toilet bowl before it’s finally flushed.
When I climbed up, she laughed. “So, youdidn’tsee that one coming?”
“Um, sort of,” I said, water dripping off the end of my nose. “Too late, though.”
“Anyway, that passage might mean you’re going to have a whirlwind romance. Or something,” she said, blushing, as she waved the book in the air to dry it. The damage had been done, though. The pages were already starting to ripple. “Thanks for rescuing my book.”
“No problem,” I said, thinking how ironic it was. I might not be any good at saving toddlers, but dime-store paperbacks, I could handle. As I looked at the cover, with those two entwined semi-naked bodies, I was hit with a feeling that nearly knocked me back into the bay.
Her favorite color is red. She likes to make construction paper snowflakes. She lost her favorite aunt in a car accident. Her first pet, a goldfish, was named Harry. She has a bright-red birthmark on her upper thigh. The list went on and on. I’d known there was something about her, something that crushed my chest every time she turned to walk away, and here it was. I knew her well. Better than Sue, my former wife. Better than anyone. The weight of all that knowledge that a day ago hadn’t been there pushed me down to the rotten planks. She looked at me, lying on the boards like a dead fish, and I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t find the words. What could I say? Nice birthmark? The script had me fumbling around, tripping over my words again. And if I went off script, if I messed anything up, she could just become a stranger to me again.
But I had to go off script, as much as possible. I had to save Nan.
So we sat there for a moment, not saying much, while my mind was working overtime. Follow the script? Veer off a little and hope she still liked me? It wasn’t hard to follow the script; it just had me sitting there, next to her, quiet, afraid to say anything and mess things up. When I was almost dry, the script had me packing up to go home. I started to pull in my lines.
“Why don’t you just come with me?” she said, tugging on the sleeve of my T-shirt. “I want to show you something.”
There probably was nothing I wanted more than to follow her. But the thought of my grandmother kept intruding. That and the nagging suspicion that this undeniably cute girl couldn’t be so into me after all the stupid things she’d seen me do. There had to be something behind it. Maybe I’d wanted to know her so badly that I just made it all up in my head.
That was it. She was the one talking about how people always wanted things from her. Maybe she was thinking she could use me. Maybe she thought I could provide her with the winning Pick-6 numbers or tell her who was going to ask her to the homecoming dance. “Why?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Because. I might be able to help you.”
“You? Help me? Don’t you mean the other way around?”
“No. I mean, you can’t help me. No one can—”
“And the idea of picking winning lottery numbers never entered your mind?” I asked, crossing my arms.
She swallowed, looked away. She could have said something. She could have denied it. Instead, she said nothing. Her silence told me everything. The sun was so hot I was already almost dry, but because of the salt, my skin felt tight and itchy. Of course she wouldn’t be interested in me. How could I even think that? Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Something stuck in my throat, making my words come out clipped and distorted. “Your grandmother used her”—I wiggled my fingers again—“powers to learn that I can see my future. Great. The secret’s out. I can fulfill my lifelong dream of appearing on national television as America’s Biggest Freak.”
She stared at me, confused.
“Don’t you get it? I can’t help you become a millionaire. And I can’t help you find true love or whatever. It doesn’t work that way. It sucks.” My muscles were so tense and my body so hot that I had the momentary compulsion to bolt out of there, leaving her, the fishing equipment, everything far behind. But then I took a breath, counted to ten. Exhaled. Felt better. My voice was calmer when I spoke next. “Look. I’d rather people not know. I just want to be normal.”
The confusion wasn’t leaving her face. And that’s when she said it. Well, she didn’t say it, because she didn’t have to. I heard her next words, clear as day in my head, before she even thought them. My grandmother did this. They were crazy. Absolutely insane. I interrupted her as she opened her mouth to speak. “That’s not possible.”
She stopped, her jaw slowly falling.
“How can your grandmother have anything to do with this?” I muttered, getting more and more disgusted by the minute. What the hell did she think this was? Some nifty little parlor trick? Our seeing the future was more than a living nightmare. It was constant, unstoppable, and wholly devastating. Something so terrible could only be explained as an act of God. It couldn’t be something that one being, one human created. That would make it seem so trivial, so silly, so small. And it was big. Big enough to ruin my life a thousand times over.
Taryn swallowed. She didn’t have to say it, but I let her words come out anyway, because maybe if they were outside of my head, that would make them more believable. And so she said it, exactly as I had imagined. But when the words were out there, hanging in the humid summer air, it didn’t help.
“Say that again,” I murmured.
Her face was serious. There was a hint of remorse in her eyes. “Nick. It’s true. My grandmother made you this way.”
I needed to get away from Taryn. Taryn, who was just as crazy as her grandmother, her all-powerful grandmother who somehow made me this way. Yeah, right. Once I scurried across Bayview Avenue and past Charlie’s ice cream shop, the cycling became a little steadier and I could make out some of the visions passing through my head. I could see my grandmother lying in that now familiar position at the bottom of the stairs, almost as if it had just happened. Somewhat more faded was the image of sunlight glimmering on the deep mahogany cover of a closed casket.
The sun was still hot enough to roast my shoulders and create a haze on the streets as I climbed the decaying concrete steps at the front of the house, flung open the screen door, and let it slam behind me. My mom had retreated to her bedroom, of course. I didn’t think she could stand being outside her tomb for longer than a few minutes. I climbed the stairs two at a time and they creaked as if the house was going to fall down. When I burst into her room, I realized I was sweating, out of breath, and still holding my fishing gear. Salt water sloshed from the bucket onto my feet and the hardwood floor. I knew Nan would scream bloody murder if she saw.
My mom looked up from the latest issue ofPeople. I didn’t know how she could read that trash, but she had piles of celebrity tabloids in her room, littering the chairs, floor, and the tops of the dresser and night table. Who seriously cared what celebrities did in their effed-up lives? Most of them had everything going for them and still couldn’t manage to hold it together. But hey, I guess anything that worked to keep her mind off the future. She stared me up and down. “You got sunburned.”
I looked cross-eyed and saw that my nose was the exact color I’d seen in my vision. I wiggled it a little and it stung. Perfect. “Mom. Why is some fortune-teller on the boardwalk claiming that she’s responsible for making us the way we are?”
Her eyes went back to her magazine. “No idea,” she murmured.
I used my index finger to push the magazine down to her knees so that she’d look at me. “This girl knows I can see the future. I never told her. She just knew.”
“Is that so?” she asked, clucking her tongue. She shrugged and went into the same speech she used to give me when I was a kid and wanted to show off my abilities at show-and-tell. “Don’t be ridiculous. I would stay away from her. You know what could happen if you say too much. If you trust too much.”
“But she knows. I didn’t have to say a word. She just knows.”
“Oh, Nick. She doesn’t know. Shesuspects. That’s dangerous. The curious ones are always dangerous. Maybe she’s just perceptive. Some people are. Bill Runyon was. I still think that he might know. But they don’t have any way of proving it. And it’s not like this is of any use to anyone. If you keep your distance, she’ll leave us alone. We don’t want people coming around, asking questions. Believe me.”
“I got the feeling that she really understood it, though,” I said, sitting on the edge of bed. “And Mom, if she knew what started it, she might be able to tell us how to stop it.”
She shook her head. “That isn’t possible.”
“How do you know?”
“Don’t you think I already tried everything possible?”
Actually, I didn’t think that at all. From my earliest memory, she’d been confined to this bed, hopeless. She’d never once talked to me about finding a way to stop the visions. “Did you?”
She sighed. “Do you really think I wanted you growing up like this? I did everything I could before you were born. And then I just prayed that it wouldn’t be passed on to you. But of course, I knew it would be. When I was pregnant with you, I went to fortune-tellers and gypsies and all those charlatans, hoping one of them could help me reverse the curse. But none of them could.”
“Curse?” I stared hard at her. It was the first time I’d ever heard it referred to as a curse. Usually it was just “the thing.” The thing I got, somehow, when she was pregnant with me. “But why did you say that Dad—”
She looked away. “We’ve been over this before. I don’t know what it is. I did a lot of stupid things, though, before I knew I was going to have you. One of those things was being involved with your father. You know it started around the same time I met him. Maybe … I don’t know. But I do know that there’s a good side to it, too.”
“Good?” She always insisted this, and yeah, she was right. Sometimes, every once in a while, we could juggle our futures and prevent bad things from happening. But ninety-nine percent of it sucked. That cool one percent never seemed worth it.
“Look, I’m tired. Can you please—”
“But what could Dad have done? And why does this girl know about it? What if she knows how to fix—”
“She doesn’t.” My mother cut me off, fuming. She leaned back in her bed. “And I said I’m tired.”
That was one problem with us communicating. We could have whole conversations without them ever taking place, but so many topics were completely closed to discussion. My dad was one of them. Nan was better about it, but every time I asked her how Mom and I ended up this way, I got the same story. My mom was normal until she was my age. She was pregnant and planning to marry my dad that summer. And then, something changed. Something intervened. This illness, this curse, whatever it was. It tore everything apart. By the end of the summer, my dad was gone and my mother, six months pregnant with me, had locked herself in her bedroom.
Nan opened the door to Mom’s bedroom then. Her eyes focused on the net and dripping bucket before anything else. She gasped at the water puddling on the hardwood. “This is not a bait shop!” she said to me, disappointed, and suddenly I had that feeling. The prickling feeling on the back of my neck, whenever something big was about to happen. I whirled around and Mom must have felt it, too, because her eyes were wider than silver dollars and her face paler than its normal pale.
My grandmother stepped toward the staircase, muttering something about how I needed to be more responsible and how she was always cleaning up after me like I was some three-year-old, and the entire scene flashed before my eyes.You will hear her muffled groans as she slips on a puddle of salt water and falls down the stairwell. You will rush to the top of the stairs and slip once yourself on the water you spilled. She will be dead before you get there. You will see the pool of blood already—
I’m not sure how I ended up at the top of the stairs. I slipped twice on the salt water and kicked up the worn braided throw rug on my way, but before I could take even one breath I was beside Nan. She’d just begun to lose her balance on the top step and I saw her bare feet slipping out from under her. She turned her head toward me with a frightened look in her eyes, her mouth shaped as if letting out a silent scream, at the same time I moved toward her. I reached out and grabbed her by the upper arm, using, in my overexcitement, far too much force than common sense would dictate I should use with her. When I pulled her up toward my chest, toward safety, there was a sickening popping sound.
But she was safe. I hoisted her in my arms to the other side of the banister and set her down on steady ground, while she let out a little terrified squeak. “My arm,” she said.
It hung down at her side, limp. She tried to lift it but winced. The cycling began at once in a torrent, a hailstorm thudding against my eye sockets, but I knew for sure that her arm was broken. Despite the pain in my head, I sighed with relief. The alternative was a lot worse.
My mother stood in the doorway to her room, clutching the side of her head with one of her hands and wincing a little despite a small, contradictory smile on her face. “See?” she said to me. “The good side.”
If I really wanted to give myself a headache, I can think back to what exactly it was that put Nan’s life in danger. I wouldn’t have dripped water up the stairs, making them slick, if I hadn’t been so rattled by my talk with Taryn. I wouldn’t have gotten rattled by talking to Taryn if I hadn’t met her on the boardwalk the day I was supposed to save Emma. I wouldn’t have gone fishing if I hadn’t lost my job and had nothing better to do. I wouldn’t have lost my job if it hadn’t been for Taryn.
Taryn, with her innocent angel face, had already wrought havoc on my life. That was enough of a reason to forget about her.
Instead, though my mind was again screaming with visions being threaded out and replaced, the one thing it kept hitching on was her. Nan was safe now. Taryn had the power to make me feel normal somehow. Being with her felt right. And she was the only person in the world who knew what I had. So what if she’d somehow deluded herself into believing her grandmother caused it?
Maybe her grandmotherhadcaused it. Maybe Taryn was telling the truth. Why would she lie about that? What else did she know?
I sat in the hospital room with Nan while her cast set, itching to get out of there and find some answers. The vision of her at the bottom of the steps was nothing more than an image from a vivid nightmare. It was realer than if I’d just imagined it, but now when I thought of her death, I saw her back in the old recliner, dozing peacefully into oblivion. The thought was a pile of bricks off my chest, yeah, but my hands shook and my mouth tasted sour, thinking of what new bricks would be laid down, one by one, as the images settled. Right now, all I could see was this: red velvet, LUVR, powdered sugar. I heard a tick-tick-ticking-ticking sound.
I really hoped my new future didn’t suck.
Nan sat on the hospital bed, looking so fragile and small in the fluorescent light. Her bones were delicate twigs, so it was no surprise I’d broken her arm in two places. She needed one of those giant casts that covered everything from wrist to underarm. It looked mega-uncomfortable. “Don’t worry yourself, honey bunny,” she said to me. “If you can just help me pick tomatoes when we get home? That was what I was heading out to do when …”
“Oh. Yeah. No problem.”
She put her hand on mine and patted it. I was supposed to be there to soothe her, but as always, she was the one doing the soothing.
“Nan, it was—you were going to—” I started to explain, but she raised a finger to shut me up. She’d come to accept our weirdness without question.
“I understand,” she said. “No explanation needed.”
The cycling still whirred through my brain a mile a minute, making all the outcomes impossible to see. I guess it was pretty obvious to Nan that something big was up, considering I was resting my head in my hands, massaging it to lessen the pain. I would bet a thousand dollars that back home, my mom was doing the exact same thing.
“Why does Mom never want to talk about Dad?” I asked.
“Too painful for her,” she said, sticking out her foot to rein in her massive leather purse on the floor. Her first attempt to hook it failed, so I grabbed it for her. She reached inside and pulled out a few hard candies in yellow wrappers. They were covered in specks of dust like they had been there a while. From the time I was a kid, she had a never-ending supply of those candies on hand. I think I sucked on them continuously from when I was in preschool until I learned they would put me in dentures by age fifty. I stopped eating them, then. Seemed like every pleasure in my life got sucked away by this “curse.” “I need a butterscotch,” Nan said. “Want one?”
“No. You didn’t know him?” I asked, already knowing the answer. I’d asked her before. When she murmured yes, I said, “I thought he was the reason we’re like this. That’s what she told me whenever I asked. I would say, ‘Mom, why can we see the future?’, and she would say, ‘Maybe it has something to do with your father.’ But she wouldn’t say anything else, so I didn’t know what to think. I thought that his blood poisoned us or something. And so I’d ask you, and you would tell me that my father was a good man in a bad situation. She wanted me to hate him so I would accept he was the reason for this and wouldn’t ask any questions. But you didn’t think that was fair, right?”
She removed her bifocals and massaged her eyes. Without her glasses, she looked like a completely different person. “Wow. You’ve certainly been thinking a lot about this, Nick.”
It wasn’t a direct answer, but I could tell she agreed with my assessment. “Today, someone told me something.…”
She stared at me. “Told you what?”
“I was told this fortune-teller on the boardwalk made us this way. Is that true?”
She looked at me for a long moment. Finally she pressed her lips together. “Could you scratch my left shoulder blade? I have an awful itch there.”
I stood up, reached behind the pillow she was propped against, and scratched her back. The line of her shoulder blade was so sharp it could cut through her T-shirt.
“The weirdest thing happened when I shook her hand, though. Just being near her, I feel calmer,” I said. “But when I touched her hand, I could think clearly. I couldn’t see the future. I felt—I think I felt what normal was like.”
“Whose hand? The fortune-teller?”
“No. This girl. Her granddaughter. So it made me think that this fortune-teller knows something.” I rubbed my eyes. They felt sore. “Also. It’s crazy, but I think I’m in love with her.”
“Who? The fortune-teller?”
I sighed. “The girl, Nan. The girl. My whole future is tied to hers now, I think. I feel like I know her. Like, really well. I know her favorite color. I know about the birthmark on her—” I stopped. Too much information. Nan just smiled at me as if she understood the whole thing. “But ever since I met her, things have started to turn bad.”
Nan cocked her head. “Bad?”
“I can’t explain it, but the future is changed. Monumentally. It started with meeting that girl. It led to you falling down the stairs, but I get the feeling there’s more. Mom and I haven’t made it out yet, but something is just wrong. The girl is going to hurt me. Maybe she’s like a drug. Bad for me, but I’m already addicted. Probably because I think she has the answers to why I’m like this, or because she’s beautiful, or because I’m stupid and I like asking for trouble.”
Nan shrugged. “Maybe a little of all those things. But how do you know that she’s responsible for all that?”
“I don’t, but I also don’t know if a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas,” I muttered, then threw up my hands. “She may be indirectly responsible, but I don’t know anything for sure. As usual.”
“Look, honey, I don’t know what’s true anymore. Your mother used to be a very free spirit. Funny to think that when she was your age, I had trouble keeping her home at night. The day she graduated from high school was the day she told me she was pregnant with you. She was so happy. She had such plans. She was going to marry your father and move inland and start a curio shop. And then, one day, in the summer, I remember it so clearly … you know all this, though.”
I nodded. “This thing couldn’t have just happened to us, though, right? There’s got to be a reason.”
She nodded sadly. “I wish I knew, honey bunny.”
I thought about it some more as my mind slowed to a dull thrumming. Some things did just happen. People developed weird diseases. Bridges crumbled. The good died young. Crap like that. And nothing, nobody caused it. All my life, I’d never dug too deep because I thought our curse was likely one of those things. And maybe it was.
But if there was a reason for it, I had to find out.
And I had a good idea where to start.
I’d wanted to seek Taryn out the minute I got home, but by the time Nan’s cast was set and we found someone willing to drive us back to Seaside, it was after ten. We didn’t have any money for a cab, so one of the orderlies who had just gotten off work offered to drive us. The guy had a shifty look to him, like a snake, and a vanity license plate that readLUVR. Plus his ancient Pinto smelled like pot, but Nan was so drugged up she kept beaming at him and calling him a “nice young man.”
She also wouldn’t stop muttering to me about how the tomatoes needed to come in. She was probably so out of it she didn’t realize how late it was. But I went outside with a bucket and a flashlight anyway and picked as many as I could from the little plot of earth by the side of the garage. I knew I’d have other things I wanted to do in the morning.
All night long, I had visions of Emma. With everything else going on, I’d managed to bury most of the thoughts of her that were lingering in my brain. But when the lights went down and I lay in bed, they surfaced like jellyfish. All I saw was a once beautiful face, bloated and misshapen. I could see those cold blue lips. In my vision, her lips opened and this eerie whisper came out: Why? Why? When the light of day finally streamed through my window, I saw these things: smiling potato, ugly blue dog, fingertip kiss, bad lemonade. The constant sound of clicking, like teeth chattering, felt buried as deep within me as my heartbeat, and when I shook my head it only seemed to get louder. I could smell something sweet in the air, like sugar doughnuts, so when I got downstairs I was confused to find Nan cooking eggs and bacon.
Two days had passed since Emma’s accident, and I knew those night visions were my subconscious, telling me I needed to go the Reeses’ house, to offer condolences. Even if they hated me. Whatever. It was the civil thing to do.
I remembered that Taryn had said the Reeses lived next door to her. So after breakfast, I rode my bike to Lafayette, where I found a bungalow near Taryn’s house. I saw a lady in a pink terry housecoat, absently watering a bunch of dying flowers in front of the bungalow. Her aim was totally off; most of the water was falling on the white pebbles and rushing down the driveway, into the gutter. I knew that had to be Mrs. Reese.
I stopped in front of her, not doing a very good job of ignoring that Taryn’s house was right next door. It was closed up and looked empty. I wondered where she was, what she was doing, when I saw the smiling potato again. I shook it from my head and concentrated on the frail lady who was now staring at me. “Um. Mrs. Reese?”
She nodded. She looked like she was my mom’s age, and her blond hair was in a tangle on her head, as if she hadn’t run a brush through it in days, which was like my mom, too. She still had a tan, though. She’d probably loved the beach up until two days ago. “Yes?”
“I’m Nick Cross. I was one of the lifeguards on duty when your daughter … um.” I couldn’t bring myself to say more. Her expression never changed, as if she wasn’t even listening. “I just wanted to say I was sorry.”
“I remember you.” She looked down at the flowers, and I braced myself for the attack. But it never came. I sighed with relief before she spoke, when I realized what she was going to say. “It’s not your fault. I only wish you had been there instead of the other one.” Her voice was fragile. “He shouldn’t have been there.”
I knew that. I knew that, and should have said something to someone. But I didn’t. What she didn’t know was that I was responsible. I stood there, trying to think of something else to say that could be of comfort, but guilt ate away the words. The You Wills just had me fumbling around for a few moments and turning awkwardly away, so very me, even though I’d been envisioning this confrontation for the past few hours. I’d come up with better words, then, but now they failed me. I caught my eyes trailing once again to Taryn’s house. “I live on Seventh. If there’s anything I can do, I just wanted to—”
“Would you like to come in? Have some lemonade?”
I jumped back to reality and planted my eyes on Mrs. Reese. She ran a suspicious eye over me and pointed inside her house. The You Wills had me halfway down the block. “I …” Lemonade. I took her daughter from her, and she wanted to give me lemonade. “All right.”
I followed her inside, lamely, all the while thinking that I’d rather be anyplace else. She led me through the kitchen, which was painted a cheerful lemon yellow but still seemed sad, because it smelled like rotting garbage. There were drawings covering every bit of real estate on the fridge, each one signed by the little girl. I swallowed as I passed them, hoping the next room would be free of memories of her. But it wasn’t. I nearly tripped over a puppet-show stage in the living room, and when Mrs. Reese sat me down on a worn lime-green sofa, I immediately faced a wall of photos. Dozens of Emmas, baby Emmas with little hair and no teeth, toddler Emmas in overalls, little-girl Emmas in pretty dresses and pigtails … they all stared at me, smiling. My throat was sticky and dry by the time Mrs. Reese placed a glass in my hands. I lifted it to my lips. The lemonade tasted strange, like artificial sweetener. Emma’s mom noticed my stare, and her eyes trailed over to the picture wall, but for only a moment. Then she looked down. “Where did you say you lived?”
“On Seventh.” I pointed, but realized that where I was pointing was in the opposite direction. “As I was saying, if you need help with anything, I’m happy to—”
“Seventh. Where you were lifeguard?”
She nodded almost imperceptibly and sat down next to me. I could tell she had other things on her mind because she sat uncomfortably close and I had to move over. “I loved that beach most of all. My grandparents had a house there. That’s why we went there. I know it’s a drive, and why should we drive when there’s a beach just up the street? But we got badges for Seaside Park because of the family atmosphere. It’s not as crowded, too, so I thought Emma would be safer.”
She trailed off, and in those silent moments my stomach twisted and turned until I thought something would snap. I really had nothing to say after that, because I hated myself. She thought Emma would be safer at my beach. And what had I done? A thousand Emmas watched me, silently smiling, like she enjoyed seeing me unnerved. The biggest one was a portrait of the whole family. It looked pretty recent. Emma’s father had gray hair and looked much older than her mother. Emma was sitting close to a boy who had to be around my age. “You have a son?” I asked.
“Yes. He was away at college. He left last week for Penn State. But he’s coming back for the service.” She smiled at the picture of him. I noticed she had a crumpled tissue in her palm. “Emma was very special to him. They did everything together. She was devastated when he left for school. And now … well, my son’s the one who is devastated. He blames himself for not being here.”
I looked at the glass of lemonade. It was still full. “I don’t want to take up any of your time. Just wanted to offer help, if you need it. I’ll give you my phone number.”
She got a pen and paper and I quickly scribbled my information on it. She whispered thank you as she led me to the door. By then, the gnawing guilt in the pit of my stomach had done a number on my insides. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to go home and crawl into bed and die.
Suddenly I heard the tick-tick-tick of the gears of a ten-speed bicycle, and a flash of blond hair and pale white skin whirred by. I jerked my head up in time to see Taryn round the corner onto Ocean, heading toward the Heights. Immediately the You Wills told me to follow her, but that was a given. I couldn’t not. Even if she was bad for me, I needed to find out what she knew.
Mrs. Reese came out and started to water some other patch of asphalt while I took my bike and followed. All the while, the tingles popped up on my shoulders, like it was so obvious I was chasing after my doom.
Taryn really was going into the heart of Sleazeside. I should have known that. She biked furiously toward the boardwalk with a little bag slung over her shoulder, wearing an oversized white T-shirt with a giant smiling potato on the back. It said:MUGSY’SBASKET O’ FRIESBEST FRIES ON THE BOARDWALKCASINO PIER—SEASIDE HEIGHTS, NJ
When I biked up to the boardwalk, it should have been no surprise to hear her voice calling behind me, “How may I help you, sir? Basket o’ Fries?”
I turned toward the Mugsy’s stand. She was standing next to the big smiling potato, wearing a ridiculous paper sailor’s hat and grinning like she wasn’t ashamed to be seen in it.
Crap. I hadn’t expected her to notice me first. I thought maybe I could just … watch her from afar. Stalk her. Still, it was a thrill to have her smiling at me.
I tried to turn and navigate toward her but there were kids having a water-gun fight and I nearly took them both out with my bike. I weaved my way around them, trying to look swift, but I accidentally jabbed a pedal into my shin. Pain sliced through my leg. Fighting back tears, I managed, “You work here?”
You would think that being able to tell the future, I could have come up with something less moronic to say. She just giggled. “Funnel cake? Please let me clog your arteries.”
“I didn’t know you worked up here.”
She shrugged. “It’s a job. All my friends back home were so jealous when they heard I was going to work up at the Heights. They thought I was going to have a boyfriend named Guido who talks likedis.” She sounded a little like the Godfather and made a gesture like she was kissing her fingers, like the guy in the pasta sauce commercials does before he says“Delicioso!”
“This is Jersey,” I said. “Not Italy.”
She shrugged. “Okay, so my accent’s not the best. But you know what I mean.”
“I know that your friends watch too much reality television.”
She bit her lip. “Aw, who cares what they think, anyway? They’re not my friends anymore.” Then she smiled and held out a crinkle-cut. “Mmm. Hungry?”
I stared at her as she sucked the fry into her mouth. I didn’t know if she meant to be seductive, but she was. My heart thudded, and it wasn’t for the grease. Everything about her was putting me in an early grave. I thought about those lips, the lips I was, at least the last time I checked, destined to kiss. The breeze coming from the ocean did nothing to calm the heat in my face.
I guess I wasn’t doing a good job at hiding it, because she crossed her arms and asked, “What?”
“Oh. Nothing.” It wasn’t like I could tell her the truth. There were about three hundred flies swarming on the whitewashed wooden counter, so to change the subject, I said, “Has the health inspector been to this place lately?”
It didn’t work. She said, “You were totally undressing me with your eyes.”
I thought about the birthmark. Now I felt the heat flushing across my cheeks. “No, I was …” In my eyes, you were already undressed.
She cleared her throat. “Did you come to find out more about my grandmother? About what I said?”
I ran my fingers over the counter. There was a splotch of ketchup there, dried and crusty, that didn’t move when I touched it. “Nah.” Yeah. “Where is the charming lady’s booth, by the way?”
She pointed her chin toward the next booth. There was the red velvet I’d seen in my visions. It wasn’t totally a tent; it was a regular storefront, but the thick lush fabric lined the windows and door. There was a sign above the entrance:READINGS BY BABE,BIBLIOMANCER EXTRAORDINAIRE.
I stared at it. “Babe? That’s her name?”
“What happened to something mystical, like Madame Paulina or the Great Zoltaire? Babe? That sounds like a little pig.”
“It’s short for Erzsebet or something. Most people can’t pronounce it. It’s Hungarian.”
“It kind of ruins the mystique. I don’t know if I can trust a bibliomancer named Babe.”
She shrugged. “Fine. Your loss. I thought maybe you wanted to find out why you are the way you are.”
“I do. But I doubt Babe over there has the answers.” I hitched a thumb in that general direction and checked out her digs. There was a neon sign that said WORLD FAMOUS and a paper sign that said: SPECIAL: PALM READINGS $10 TODAY ONLY! It was so sun-faded and covered in cobwebs it had probably been up there for years. The red curtain was open a sliver, but all I could see was blackness. Looked like a closet. Or like a place you went into if you wanted to get mugged. “Has she ever read your palm?”
Taryn nodded. “Yeah. Plenty of times.”
“Was she ever right?”
“Oh, well …” She smiled a little. “Of course. Always.”
I couldn’t tell if she was fooling with me. I looked at the placard outside, which said: GUESS YOUR WATE OR YOUR FATE! COME IN AND GIVE BABE A TRY. I smirked. “She spelled ‘weight’ wrong.”
“Okay, so she’s not book smart. But she knows things.”
I stepped a little closer to the booth and smelled some nasty spicy incense. Gagging, I was about to turn away when I noticed a smaller sign, only the size of a business card, in the other window. ABSOLUTELY NO REVERSALS. I pointed to it. “What does that mean? Reversal of what?”
“If you meet me after my shift ends, I’ll show you. Okay?”
I got that feeling again, that familiar feeling that always seemed to happen around her, like being torn down the middle. I needed to run away. Fast. And yet I found myself nodding. What the hell was I getting myself into?
She leaned forward, about to speak, when I felt a presence behind me. “How can I help you? Basket o’ Fries?” she asked cheerily, as a man in a wifebeater sauntered up to the counter. He placed his order and she got it for him. He was kind of an idiot, asking for ketchup and salt and napkins when they were right there in front of him, but Taryn helped him out, the courteous smile never leaving her face. When he started to walk away she turned to me and opened her mouth to speak, but I suddenly saw the guy coming back to ask for her phone number.
“What time is your boyfriend coming to pick you up?” I asked in a really loud voice.
She stared at me, her mouth half-open. “Um.”
“You know, Butch? To take you to the STD clinic?” I motioned to the guy, who was waiting nearby.
She looked over my shoulder at him for a moment, then said, “Um. Four?”
“Cool.” I looked over my shoulder. Idiot was meandering away.
Her eyes widened. “What was that all about? Was he … did you …”
“He was going to ask for your number.”
“Oh. Really?” She pressed her lips together, flustered. “Well, I could have just told him no.”
“I know that’s hard for you.”
“No it’s not. It’s—” She wrinkled her nose. “What do you know about me, anyway?” She got even redder as she thought about it. “You know a lot about me, don’t you?”
I nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“What else do you know about me?” She seemed sort of angry. “No, forget it. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
She shrugged. “It’s not your fault, is it? But it’s really weird.” Then she smiled. “You are right. It is hard for me to say no sometimes. When I like someone. But I could have said no to that guy. He’s not really my type.”
“He looked a little like that kind of boyfriend your friends back home expect you to have, though. You know, the one thattalksa like dis.” I did the“Delicioso!”fingertip kiss.
She thought for a second. “You’re right. Maybe I should try to get him back.” Then she leaned over the counter and said to me, “Four is when my shift ends.”
“I’ll be here.” I tried to be nonchalant, but then I thought of the birthmark again and knocked over the condiment tray. Taryn just shook her head as if to say, “I don’t want to know.”
She was right. She didn’t.
Since it was six hours until her shift ended, I could have biked back home. I should have. Nan was disabled and could have used my help. Instead, I spent a good chunk of the time aimlessly meandering down the boardwalk, taking in all the sights. Sure, I was a local, but the truth was I hadn’t been to the Heights since the idea of cotton candy sounded good, which was years ago. The farthest I ever ventured up there was to the Seaside Park Beach Patrol headquarters, which was right on the border between the two towns. Here, though, the crazy people and steady clicking of the big wheels and the whir of rides combined with the scent of saltwater taffy and pizza to make it virtually impossible to hear the You Wills.
Now I worked extra hard to hear them. Something was making me cling to them. Of course it was Taryn. I strained to hear the You Wills, which led me to a stand in the corner of the boardwalk that was raffling off ugly dollar-store stuffed dogs. I blew eight dollars trying to win one by throwing darts before I realized I was a sucker, since I already knew what was going to happen. What the hell would I do with a stuffed dog, anyway?
By the time I returned it was 4:05. I’d timed it perfectly. I didn’t want to appear too overeager by showing up early or right on time. So I figured five minutes late was good, even though I spent those five minutes staring at the clock on the boardwalk and watching the seconds tick away. When I got there, she was sitting outside the stand, hat removed, tapping her foot and looking anxious. “You’re late,” she said.
She grabbed me by the wrist and immediately the You Wills stopped. A gust of air flooded my lungs at that second because I gasped and choked a little. She led me toward her grandmother’s booth. “You don’t get it. My grandmother starts working at five, but she always arrives early. And she can’t know we’re here.”
With my mind calm, I could really concentrate on her for the first time. She had little crinkles around her eyes and freckles over the bridge of her nose. I realized I’d already had the map of those freckles committed to memory—a dark one under her left eye, a constellation of three at the side of her nose. She didn’t wear any makeup and her hair was in a ponytail, but she still managed to look beautiful. She always would, even when she was older.
“Why are you staring?” she asked, sounding annoyed. I probably would be, too, if someone was studying me as closely as I was looking at her.
“Nothing. Um, why? I thought your grandmother and I really hit it off that last time.”
She smirked, then jabbed her finger at the tiny sign that said: ABSOLUTELY NO REVERSALS. “That’s why.”
“But what does it mean?” I asked again, as she lifted the velvet curtain and pulled me inside. This was right from my vision. The room was barely the size of a closet, with a small table in the center, a crystal ball atop it. Everything was dark velvet, hot and cramped, like the inside of a coffin. The stench of incense was so strong I had to swallow again and again to keep from gagging.
Taryn reached under the table and pulled out an old book. “This,” she said, “is the Book of Touch.”
I stared at it. It wasn’t anything remarkable. It was small with a simple black leather cover, kind of like one of the ancient Bibles Nan kept by her bedside. “What is it for?”
“I’ll show you.”
At first I thought it was a how-to manual for massage or something, but I wasn’t lucky enough to have Taryn wanting me to give her a backrub. Not yet, anyway. She hurried to a small dusty bookshelf and slid her hand behind a picture of a man who looked about a thousand years old. She pulled out a key. “That’s my grandfather,” she said, motioning with her chin as she turned the book on its side, revealing a half-rusted lock. “He’s dead.”
She shrugged. “He didn’t speak English.”
She put the key in the lock and it clicked open. For a moment I could have sworn the temperature in the tent dropped, but that was probably just the result of watching too many episodes ofScooby-Doo. Taryn opened the book to the first thick, yellowing page and motioned me over. “Each page is a Touch.”
I watched her flip through. The book must have been crazy old, because it smelled moldy and almost every page was mostly blank, with just a few foreign words in bold print and a signature on it. The ones that were full had an ornate, slanting gold script that was somewhat faded or smudged. But I couldn’t make a thing out. “That’s not English.”
“What does it say?”
“It tells you what to say to perform the Touch. First you have to sign on the page. It’s like a contract. And then once the Touch is performed, the words of the spell fade—look.” She opened to a page that was blank except for a heading and a signature, Ernesto Pugilini, at the very bottom. “This Touch has already been performed.”
“What the hell is a Touch?”
“Oh. Sorry. It’s like a spell.” She stared at the page. “And this one is … Paws of the Bear. Ernesto received unnatural strength.”
My jaw just hung there. “Wait. You can read Hungarian?”
“Duh. Isn’t that what I just did?”
“Okay. So you’re telling me that this book can make someone—strong? Or whatever? Give me a break.” I studied her face. It was completely serious. “You don’t believe in that crap, do you?”
“Um, of course.” She stared at me. “Wow. Didn’t think I’d have to convince you.”
“Okay. Prove it.”
I was already getting that feeling, as if the You Wills were saying,Great thing to ask, Captain Obvious. She flipped through a few pages and turned the book around to face me. It was an almost blank page, I guessed from a Touch that had already been performed, or whatever. Under the heading I saw a very familiar signature. A name I’d seen signed on every absentee excuse I’d ever brought to school, usually after a bad bout of cycling. Moira Cross.
Taryn pointed at the heading in Hungarian. “This one says Sight of the Eagle,” she said. “Three guesses what that will do.”
Outside, a balloon popped, making me jump so high I hit the cobwebbed chandelier above us. A child’s cries echoed in the background as I stared at the name on the page until my vision blurred.
Of course. Of course.
It was like the vital missing puzzle piece, and as soon as I fit it in, everything else became clear. I wondered why I didn’t think of it before. It seemed so like her. Always wanting to know her future, always being tied up in superstitions. I’d bet before this, she’d visited every fortune-teller in the Heights.
“So you’re saying …,” I sputtered, collapsing in a black pleather armchair and ignoring the farting noise it let out. I knew what she was saying. I just couldn’t form the right words.
Taryn crouched beside me. “This book has been in my family for hundreds of years. There aren’t very many Touches left.”
“Wait. She let your grandmother …” I tried to say more, moved my mouth in a thousand different ways, but the words didn’t come out.
“She paid to do it. Probably a thousand dollars or more.”
“Paid? Your grandmother ruined her life, my life, and charged her for it?” When Taryn nodded, I realized I couldn’t breathe anymore. I doubled over, feeling like I had been kicked in the gut.
Taryn pointed to the date, which was in July, eighteen years ago, a month after my mom’s graduation and a few months before I was born. Eighteen years ago. I stared at that date until my eyes burned. The exact date our nightmares began.
“And it transferred to me, because my mother was pregnant with me,” I muttered, rubbing my eyes.
“That’s where the ‘No Reversals’ comes in.”
I dropped my hands. “You mean, she could reverse a Touch if she wanted to?”
Taryn shook her head. “No. I just told you, that’s not possible.”
“You didn’t say it wasn’t possible. You just said she wouldn’t do it.”
“It’s not possible,” she said firmly. She took the book and closed it, then locked it with the key. “But Grandma warns people. She doesn’t just take all their money and give them a Touch. She has seen that, while some of these Touches perform miracles, some of them destroy people’s lives. She tells them that sometimes a person’s greatest desire can be the most terrible curse.”
Of course we would have the luck to fall into the “curse” category. “So let me get this straight. My mother paid so that she could be this way?”
She nodded. “Every one of these Touches is something really cool. Something people would kill for. And long ago my ancestors realized that certain people would not only risk their lives to be Touched but they’d also fork over huge sums of money. Charging a lot also helps to ensure a person is serious about it. Grandma doesn’t want just anyone waltzing in and getting a Touch. When people put together that much money, they’re usually serious. Plus it pays her bills.”
I leaned my head against the table and muttered my mom’s name. “Why?” I whispered, and no sooner had I done that then I saw the answer. I saw my mom, explaining, tears running down her face. I was so scared when I found out I was pregnant. And there was so much uncertainty with your father. He said he loved me, but I couldn’t be sure. When he asked me to marry him, I was so afraid that one day he would leave me, like my father left your grandmother. So I pulled together my life’s savings—a thousand dollars—and went to her. The first thing I saw when I got the Touch was me, alone. Your father was gone. And then the worst thing—I saw I’d given this curse to you. I destroyed every chance of us having a normal—
At that point I started to green-elephant. I didn’t want to hear her whining anymore. She knew. All this time I was searching for answers, and she already knew. It was her fault. At that moment, I didn’t want to see her again.
“What is that?” Taryn asked. “The green elephant?”
I groaned through the pain, through the memory that came up at that moment. Really, anything would work, but I started saying that because when I was seven or eight, I bought my mom this necklace for Christmas that had a jade elephant pendant. I bought it for a buck at school, so it wasn’t real jade, but she wore it every day. On bad days, when my head really hurt, I’d sit with her and she’d hold me to her and I would see nothing but that green elephant, with its trunk in the air. It meant good fortune. Good fortune.
She didn’t wear it anymore. It was probably in a landfill somewhere. That was one of the few times I’d experienced cycling because of something she did. One day the cable had gone out, so she reached behind the set to jiggle the wires, and the necklace’s black cord, which had been fraying a bit, got caught on a screw and snapped. The jade elephant fell to the ground and the trunk broke off in a pile of green chalk dust. That day, it was as if every future memory I’d have of my mom changed just a bit and felt slightly strange, like new shoes that needed breaking in. In each of those visions, the elephant was gone from her neck.
I leaned back in the chair, feeling something close to the numbness I’d get after a night of bad cycling, when my head had been thrashed so much it couldn’t feel anything anymore. “It’s just a nonsense phrase. It doesn’t mean anything. I say it to keep the future memories from invading. To calm my mind. If my brain is concentrating on something else, it doesn’t have time to dwell on the future.”
Taryn nodded as if it wasn’t the stupidest thing in the world, and I loved her for that.
The picture of my mom sobbing kept invading, and I pushed it away. She was lucky we could carry on conversations in our minds, because if I’d been in the same room together, I didn’t know what I might have done or said. “So, what other Touches are in there? What else can this book do?”
She flipped through the pages. “Like I said, there’s only a handful of them left. Um, this one is Poison Arrow. Architect of Time. Small Army …” She kept flipping pages.
“Any Touches that will undo previous Touches?” I asked, hopeful.
She shook her head. “No such luck.”
“Well, can you, like, say the curse backward and—”
“Uh-uh. Absolutely no reversals.”
“But is that because it can’t be done, or because your grandmother doesn’t know how to do it?” I asked, getting desperate.
“It can’t be done. Touches are permanent,” she said, making my heart, which was suddenly twittering with all these new, thrilling sensations, turn to lead. She looked at her watch. “We’d better get out of here. Grandma will be here any minute and she does not want me talking to you about the Book of Touch.”
“Why not? Isn’t it good business for her?”
“Sure it is. Like I said, it pays her rent. But I don’t think local law enforcement would be too happy about it, so it’s very hush-hush.” She walked to the opening of the booth and stopped short. I didn’t have to look out; I immediately saw what was coming. Her grandmother plodding up the ramp, her thick sausage cankles visible under that same shapeless dress of dead brown flowers. I grabbed Taryn by the wrist and the vision dissolved in my head. We needed to hide. But when I turned, there was nothing, just mounds of red velvet on the walls. Sure, there was the little table, but it was too little to hide both of us, and did I really want to spend any length of time with Taryn’s grandmother’s cankles in my face?
Taryn led the way, pulling back one of the curtains. “In here,” she said. I climbed in. There was a cinder-block wall about three feet behind the curtains, but it was a good hiding spot.
“How’d you know this was here?” I whispered.
“I used to spend a lot of time back here when I was a kid,” she answered. “Grandma thought it would be good for me.”
“Good for you? You mean, she wanted you to see people get this … Touch?”
She nodded, then shrugged.
I laughed bitterly. Her grandmother was totally whacked. Letting a little girl see people curse themselves was the perfect playdate, right up there with Chuck E. Cheese’s. Taryn let the curtains fall behind us. From where we stood, I could look up and see neon lights from the arcade next door. The bells and chatter of the electronic games were loud enough to make me realize they were probably right on the other side of the wall. It only went up seven or eight feet. I could probably hoist myself up and escape that way. As I was looking for a way out, Taryn cursed. Really loudly.
“Shhh,” I said. “What?”
“Forget it. Grandma’s practically deaf,” she explained, and not in a whisper. She held out the key to the book.
I stared at it. “You forgot to …”
“I was in a hurry. It’s no big deal. She probably won’t perform any Touches tonight, anyway. I’ll just put it back tomorrow.” Then she put her hand on my knee, steadying it. I hadn’t realized it, but I was fidgeting, something I did all the time. “You are a jumpy one, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said, not really thinking. “Sue always says I’m so jumpy I make kangaroos jealous.”
Oh, hell. Usually I was good about keeping my future under wraps, especially with complete strangers. But like I said, she put me at ease. Why else would I be bringing up my no-longer-wife-of-thirty-years? Sue, who was probably now going to marry some other guy and have a lot better future than she would have had with me. “Forget it,” I mumbled.
I watched as her grandmother lumbered into the tent, breathing heavily. She was nothing like Nan, who was barely sixty. This lady looked ancient. “How old is your grandmother?”
Taryn studied her from the slit in the curtain. “I have no idea. But I’m her twenty-ninth grandchild. Her last grandchild.” She exhaled slowly. “Lucky for me.”
“What does that mean?”
She motioned to the wall with her chin. “I’ll tell you later. Let’s go.”
We walked through to the rear of the arcade, looking for a door. If we could get out onto Ocean Avenue, we could get around the booth and to the bicycle rack without any possibility of Old Scary Lady seeing us. “So, who is Sue?” Taryn asked.
And I’d thought maybe she’d forget. I cleared my throat. “No one. Really.” Which was the truth. Now she was no one to me.
“Old girlfriend? Current girlfriend?”
I just mumbled, “My wife. In a different lifetime.”
Her eyes widened. “What do you mean, different lifetime?”
“Like I said, every time I do something off script, I can throw things off. And once, before I met you, I had this future where I was going to marry a girl named Sue.” I had a momentary reflection back to that feeling, that feeling of safety and happiness I’d only had in that life, and cringed at the thought of losing it. Could I ever get that back? “It was a good future. A perfect one.”
“And the one you’re going to have now?”
I shrugged. It was hard to explain. That last future, I’d had time to settle into. It took a while, but eventually I learned all the ins and outs, and the more I learned, the more perfect I realized it was. I knew this new one didn’t feel right, but it was too soon to tell. All new futures felt that way. It felt like standing on the edge of a cliff. Maybe I would fly, maybe I would fall. It always took a few days or weeks to fully understand it. “I don’t know. I need time to sort it out.”
“It could be even more perfect. You don’t know.”
“I guess.” I didn’t bother to tell her I had had hundreds of futures set in my mind before. None of them was as good as the one I’d just lost. Sure, there had been okay futures, but in a good majority of them, I ended up alone. I understood that; I’d been alone most of my life so far. Nobody got me. Nobody could stand me for too long. Sue had been a miracle, even though I hadn’t met her. And Taryn … Taryn was another miracle, with a difference. She was here, in the flesh.
I looked at Taryn, filled in that moment with the urge to grab her and hold her against me and never let her go. Suddenly, she stopped and looked at me. “You look like you’re going to throw up.”
My throat was desert dry. I shook my head and started to say something to blow it off when she caught sight of something beyond me. “Oh, Skee-Ball! Let’s do just a couple of games.”
I agreed, even though I hadn’t done Skee-Ball since I was, like, five. Taryn fed all the quarters she could find in her bag into the machine and the balls fell down the chute. I did the same and then realized I was playing next to a master. One after another, she popped those suckers into the little circle in the center marked 50. I kept hitting the gutter. The You Wills kept repeating the same thing to me, like a record skipping:You will hit the gutter, you will hit the gutter, you will hit the …
“So you’ve seen people get Touched, huh? What’s that like?” I thought maybe conversation would take the focus off my sucktastic abilities.
She straightened and threw her first gutter ball, then swallowed. “It’s … horrible. I don’t want to think about it.”
I stared at her as my brain quieted from the You Wills. “Then why would your grandmother make you watch from behind the curtain?”
She threw another ball. “Because I am the last grandchild. And in the lore, the last grandchild inherits the power.”
“The power to use the book. And … other things.” She looked away. “Not nice things.” She blushed a little. “I am afraid if I tell you this, you’ll think I’m a freak.”
I grinned, surprised. “Look who you’re talking to.”
“Well, I also attract certain people. People with a certain wanting or void in their lives. And people like that aren’t usually the best people to hang out with.”
She finished throwing her last ball and shook her head. “You’re different. You didn’t ask for this. But I kind of lied to you about why we left Maine.”
“Your father wasn’t laid off?”
“Oh, no, he was. But it was because of me.” She bit her bottom lip. “I’m an only child and my mom and dad wanted me to be a doctor. They weren’t too keen on me growing up to be a fortune-teller.”
“Right. So when I was six, Grandma started taking me to see the Touches performed. And as I said, they were horrible. Then the nightmares started. When my parents found out what I was going through, there was a huge fight. My grandmother told them I’d never be able to escape my destiny, but they thought she was crazy. They dropped everything and moved me to Maine. And everything was okay for a while. My dad started doing really good. He was one of the top executives at the factory. Everything was great. I think my parents thought we’d escaped it. But like I said, I have these powers. The power to attract certain people. I had friends up there, or at least, I thought they were friends before I came here and realized they were just being drawn by the Touch. And you know how I am about saying no.”
“So you were a troublemaker, huh?” I said, raising an eyebrow.
“Seriously?” I asked. She just didn’t seem the type.
“I was! I was terrible. It started when I was thirteen or fourteen. My friends and I would stay up all night, doing things. Mostly little, stupid things that bored kids do when they have nothing better to do. Breaking into houses. Destroying property. Stuff like that. I refused to listen to my parents, and no matter what they did, I found a way around it. They barred my windows, for God’s sake. And I knew it was stupid but—”
“You couldn’t say no.”
“Right. And I couldn’t shake them. Just as they were attracted to me, I fell for them, too. They kept following me around, worshipping me, and I never realized that it was because they were attracted to what I could do for them. The Touch. I kept running away from home and my dad took all this time from work to go looking for me or deal with the trouble I’d gotten myself into. So he was fired. And we were forced to move here. The funny thing was, all those great friends I had back in Maine never emailed me, called, texted … not even once. They didn’t want me, they just wanted to be Touched.”
“Like my grandmother said, I can’t escape my destiny. I have to take over for my grandmother and perform these Touches, or else things will get bad. Really bad. My parents are finally accepting that, I guess.” Her face had paled past its normal pale, to an unnatural and deathly bluish-white. “They have no other choice.”
“What do you mean by ‘really bad’?” I asked.
She wrinkled her nose. “The worst. But I don’t want to talk about that. I get really nervous thinking about it. That’s why I like hanging out with you. I don’t think about it constantly when I’m with you.”
I ran out of balls, so I stood there and watched her throw her second gutter ball. When she threw a third one, she grimaced and massaged her arm. As soon as she started throwing again, she hit the 50.
“And that’s why I knew you were Touched. The second I felt your hand, it was like I understood everything. But it’s more than that. We’re alike. Usually, people get Touched of their own free will. But you didn’t. We’re both cursed, but it’s not our fault.”
I nodded. “When I touched your hand, I couldn’t see the future anymore. It made me almost feel normal.”
She stopped throwing balls and straightened. “I guess that makes sense.” Then she said, “Do you like it?”
“What? Touching your hand?”
She grinned. “Feeling normal.”
I smiled. It didn’t matter which question she had been asking; either way, the answer was yes. “Of course.”
She reached over and grabbed my hand. “Better?”
My mind stopped in the middle of a You Will and I just nodded. “Yeah. Much. It’s like … almost …”
She squinted. “Like what?”
“Almost too quiet. I’m used to multitasking. Doing things while seeing what’s coming next. You know, like if you have two televisions tuned to the same program, but on different signals, and one is a few seconds ahead? That’s what it’s like. I’m used to it. This is …”
“Exciting?” she said, giving me this coy smile. “For once in your life you have no idea what is coming next.”
I was going to say scary, but then I realized that made me sound like a wuss. “Um, yeah. I guess normal life can be exciting.”
Never letting go of my hand, she ripped her tickets from the dispenser and dragged me to the prize center, where she traded in her twenty-five tickets for two neon slap bracelets. She gave the blue one to me and kept the hot pink one for herself. Then we walked onto the boardwalk, away from her grandmother’s tent and toward the rides. I felt two feet taller. I’d never held hands with a girl before, much less a hot one. Other guys were checking her out, and each time I stuck my chin out farther. It felt freaking phenomenal.
“So,” she said as we walked. I guess we were walking aimlessly, because our bikes were in the other direction. I didn’t care. I could have walked all night like this. “What else do you know about me?”
I smiled. “I thought you didn’t want to know.”
“Well. I’m curious. It’s nothing bad, is it?”
Holding hands with Taryn did nothing to erase the image of that birthmark, of the curve of pale skin on her lower back, leading to her backside. It didn’t matter how many girls I cycled through; I knew that would be etched in my brain permanently. “No. It’s nothing. Really.”
“Well, I think you must know something. Your face keeps getting red every time I bring it up. Do we get really close or something?”
I swallowed, fully aware that anything I said now could totally destroy that future. “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do,” she teased.
“Look,” I said under my breath. “The future isn’t set. And I don’t want to …”
“Oh, you don’t want to blow it. I get it. But you know, normal people don’t worry about these things. They just take it naturally.”
Even though the ocean air was cool, my hand was sweating in hers. How the hell did I know what normal people would do? All that confidence I had a second before drained away and I found myself wondering again why she’d want to be seen with me, the abnormal person who didn’t even know how to take things naturally, whatever that meant. “Okay,” I mumbled.
“We can go on a ride. Like the Tilt-a-Whirl? Or the haunted house?” she suggested. “What do you think?”
“Surprise me.” She was still contemplating, unaware, so I said, “Get it? Surprise me? That’s a joke.”
She gave me a look. “Oh, right, because you can’t be surprised. Funny,” she said, like it wasn’t. “Wait, can you be surprised? When you fell into the water at the pier, you were surprised.”
“Nah. I knew it would happen. But by then I couldn’t stop myself. It’s okay, though. I don’t really like surprises.”
“You don’t? Are you scared of them?” she taunted.
“No, I’m—I like to be in control as much as I can.”
“Booor-ing!” she singsonged. “You should forget about that. Live a little. What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
She didn’t get it. I could see the worst things that could happen. A lot of them would make her lock herself in her bedroom for the rest of her life. “Most surprises are bad.”
“That’s not true. There are lots of good ones, too.” She surveyed the amusements and her eyes widened. “Oh yes, the haunted house. I love it. Don’t you?”
“I—I’ve never …” I clamped my mouth shut. It was obvious I was a dork. That I led a sheltered life because of the curse. I should just take things naturally and tell her. But from the way she was looking at me, I think she already knew.
“Don’t worry. It will be fun. Lots of surprises in the haunted house.”
“Bad ones,” I answered, reluctant, as I tried to understand what about the concept of surprise could be good. Surprises sucked. It was so much better to be in control.
Taryn dragged me toward the stucco housefront at the end of the pier, with the fake wrought iron fence and cobwebs everywhere. There was a raven with a skeletal hand in its beak perched on the sign that said 6 TICKETS, but even that looked pretty pathetic. Taryn must have come here a lot because she had a book of tickets in her bag. She handed the attendant twelve and we squeezed into a car.
Then she clutched my hand tighter. “I’m scared,” she said, but in a way that I couldn’t tell if she was joking. Before I could look at her face, the car jerked forward and we careened into darkness.
It was pretty dumb. The scariest thing was how the ride twisted us around, almost dislocating my spine, and our car shook back and forth so much I was sure the whole thing was going to collapse. The squealing of the wheels on the track drowned out any scary noises we were supposed to hear. Occasionally someone in a scary mask would jump out at us, but it wasn’t dark enough to make it a complete surprise. I think Taryn was disappointed, because the first time it happened, she let out a high-pitched, deafening yelp, which dissolved into laughter, but after that she just muttered things under her breath.
When the ride found daylight again, we squinted at each other and then said “Lame” at the same time. I shrugged at her as we got off. “Oh, well. At least you paid.”
“Hey!” she began, but stopped short. She was walking in front of me, so I couldn’t see her face, but then I looked up and saw him.
He was with—of course—two girls from school with too much in the way of hair and makeup and too little in the way of clothing, the kind of girls who never gave me the time of day. They were his bookends. His smile disappeared as he took us in. “Well, hello, Taryn,” he sang in a game-show-host voice. Then he nodded at me. “Cross.”
I nodded back. Taryn gave a little wave. “Hi, Evan!” she said in her typical bubbly way, but there was something weird about how she stiffened.
“How are you doing?” he asked, not casually, but in a tone you would use if you knew a person’s close family member had just died. I knew the question was just for Taryn, because he stood so that his back, and the backs of the other girls, were to me. The perfume and cologne and whatever else they were wearing smelled worse than the incense at Babe’s tent, but the view of the girls’ asses made it tolerable. “How’s your grandmother?”
“Fine. We’re all doing good,” she said.
Both girls looked away, bored or annoyed or a little of both. One fed herself a long string of sticky blue cotton candy; the other inspected her nails. I suddenly had the feeling I was listening in on a private conversation. Like maybe Taryn knew Sphincter. Like, really knew him.
They talked a little more about school starting next week and doesn’t-it-suck-that-summer’s-almost-over? Even though it was a really generic, safe topic, the more they talked, the more my stomach churned. Sphincter moved in really close, probably just to piss me off. It was working. How did they know each other? I stared at the lame “his” slap bracelet on my wrist and silently wished Sphincter would crawl back into whatever hole he came out of. When they parted, Taryn just said, “Let’s go on this Rock n’ Roll thing. I have more tickets.”
I shrugged and we walked to the ride. I heard him mumble something about “Crazy Cross,” and the girls tittered. They headed off toward the haunted house. While Taryn reached in her bag for tickets, I turned and caught Sphincter staring.
I thought maybe I could get her to admit what they had going on. “He totally wants you,” I said as we settled into the car.
She shrugged, not impressed. “I’m sure he does.” She shifted in her seat. “They always do.”
I thought she meant guys, but I couldn’t remember when she’d last been so full of herself. So I just let out an amused “Oh, yeah?”
She nodded, biting her lip. “Yeah.” The ride started to pick up speed then, so I couldn’t be positive, but I was pretty sure there were tears in her eyes.
Meeting Sphincter was like throwing a bucket of water on whatever fire was going between us. Taryn still held my hand, which would have been a good sign if it hadn’t grown cold, stiff. I thought about asking her what was wrong, but I really didn’t want to know the answer. What about Sphincter had gotten her crying? I don’t think I could have looked at her the same if she and Sphincter had … well, if she and Sphincter had anything.
We got off the ride without a sound and stopped at the rack to get our bikes. Taryn had to let go of my hand to unlock her bike, and when she did, the You Wills began immediately. She saw the look of pain on my face and offered to hold my hand again, but it didn’t matter. I was going to have to deal with it sooner or later anyway. So we walked our bikes all the way back to her street, not talking much. By then I was feeling a little better. Still woozy, but the stabbing pain between my eyes was gone.
“So,” she said when we got to her driveway, tipping her head in the direction of the Reeses’ house. “Funeral’s tomorrow. Are you going?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I mumbled as my head pounded away. I felt that pain in my stomach again. Of course I would be there.
She narrowed her eyes. “I know it was probably traumatic for you. Are you blaming yourself?”
I didn’t want to tell her, didn’t want to talk about it at all, but I nodded. “I saw the other future. The one where I saved her.”
She put her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t beat yourself up. You did everything you could.”
I shook my head, shook her hand away. A You Will popped through immediately, wanting me to get home. Instead, I looked at my feet. “I knew Pedro was not fit to be on watch. But I did nothing. I should have said something. But I didn’t, because I wanted to stay on script. You see? It was my fault.”
Her hand found its way back to mine. The cycling stopped again. A wave of exhaustion swept over me, as if my mind was sick of starting and stopping again and again. She whispered, “It’s Pedro’s fault. Not yours.”
I nodded. I didn’t believe her, but I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. She just held my hand for a while. Then I said, “I’d better go.”
She nodded, and I dropped her hand and started to walk away. Immediately these things found their way into my head: beauty, harder to kidnap, Saint Christopher. That was when she called after me. “Have you ever been to one?”
I swallowed and, for some reason, tasted grass. I could feel the blades of grass and earth on my tongue. I brought my hand to my mouth and licked it, expecting my hand to be black, but it wasn’t. Instead, my eye began to pulsate with pain. I moved the muscle in my cheek up and down. Yeah. It felt like I’d been punched there. What the hell? When I turned back to her, she was staring at me with an expression I’d come to know so well: horrified confusion. I tried my best to cover it up. “I, um, had a hair in my mouth. Been to one of what?”
She let it slide. “A funeral.”
I started to say yes and then shrugged. I’d been to dozens, in the future. Lucky for me, none of them had worked its way into my past. The real thing was probably a lot more unpleasant than the memory. “No,” I finally said.
She laughed. “Which is it?”
“Long story,” I said, not able to say more. My head was aching so much, I felt it down to my jaw. Probably my mom was having the same feeling. Good. For the first time, I was glad. This time, I wanted her to hurt.
“Okay. You can tell me later. So want to go together?”
My heart thumped. She wanted to see me again. Yes! I hadn’t screwed everything up yet. And whatever history she had with Sphincter, it didn’t matter. But then I thought about Nan’s boat of a car, sitting in our dusty driveway. I thought of the way my hands shook on the steering wheel, of how I had trouble most times meeting the speed limit, even on residential streets. I started to sweat. “I, um, don’t … I mean, I guess I could pick you up.… Ten-thirty okay?”
We spent another long moment standing there, outside her house. I counted four anthills in her driveway.
Here was the point when a normal guy would have gone in for the kill. Instead, I froze up. Sure, Taryn came off as innocent and angelic. But I found myself wondering what trouble she’d actually gotten into in Maine. Most likely she was a lot more experienced than me. Didn’t take much to be that way, but still. The opportunity to majorly screw up that future I’d seen of her, of us together, was right here. Right now.
And so I blew it. “See you,” I tossed over my shoulder, as if I’d been talking to just anyone. I cringed almost immediately after I pulled my bike away from the curb.
And then I went back to face the future memories that had been flapping around in my mind like wounded birds.
Nan had this 1976 Buick that was the color of calcified dog crap. It was built like a tank, all square edges, and had one of those bench seats that took a team of oxen to move into position. The Buick turned more heads than a car accident when it came down the road. It was so god-awful, people would crane their necks to see the unfortunate owner. Not like they could see little Nan behind the massive steering wheel, which was the size of a monster truck’s tire. The Buick wouldn’t fit in a regular garage, but that was fine with Nan because, as she would proudly tell you, we had the only three-car garage in town. Our garage was bigger than our house, so the car was very comfortable among Nan’s strange collections of things, like the scoops from coffee cans and used pop-up turkey timers. It only had twenty-three thousand miles on it, “a classic!”, as Nan would say. She only used it to go to the A&P and church every Sunday. She walked everyplace else.
As the sun began to melt orange against the horizon, I got Nan into the passenger’s seat and slid behind the massive wheel, where Saint Christopher stared at me from a placard on the dashboard. I gripped the wheel and inched out of the garage like an old man.
Wow. I really needed the practice. Taryn would be wanting me like crazy after this ride.
It went without saying that I didn’t like driving. Before that day I hadn’t driven since I passed my driver’s test at the beginning of the summer. Something about seeing all the accidents I could cause rubbed me the wrong way. Once, when I had my learner’s permit, I thought about flipping on the radio but saw a ten-car pileup. There were just too many opportunities to cause bad things to happen on the road. But today Nan was drugged on something that had her snoring between sentences, not to mention she was down an arm, so it looked like I wouldn’t be able to avoid driving. She’d cornered me the second I got home and told me I had to take her to the pharmacy on the mainland, because she’d realized this afternoon she’d run out of heart pills. She’d called Ocean Pharmacy on the island for a delivery, but they didn’t have the kind she needed, and she was desperate.
But that was okay, I told myself. Normally I would have been a wreck. Despite the weird way it had ended, the afternoon with Taryn had me feeling good. Like maybe I could live a seminormal life, with someone who finally understood what I was going through. Getting there, I was fine. I joked with Nan about how she looked like she had been in a prizefight and how she could tell everyone “the other guy looks worse.” I turned up the modern-rock station on the radio and drummed my fingers on the steering wheel in time to the music. I thought about how soft and small Taryn’s hand felt against mine.
On the way back, though, I lost it. It wasn’t simply the act of driving, of pressing on the gas pedal, that freaked me out. I made it over the bridge from Toms River (can’t tell you how many times I envisioned the Buick careering over the railing and into the bay) and all the way down Central, carefully following the You Wills right down to the letter. But when I was navigating around town hall, not half a mile from Nan’s cottage, it hit me.Glass shards spraying in my face icy water droplets the smell of peanut butter
What the …?
Instinctively I squeezed my eyes shut, and doing so, I slammed on the brakes. Nan grabbed the armrest. A car horn blared behind me and a red pickup swerved around me. The driver gave me the finger.
It didn’t seem real. It couldn’t be my future. First of all, I hated peanut butter. The smell made me so sick that I couldn’t stand it. And the car was all wrong. It wasn’t the easily recognizable Buick, with the tan pleather inside and St. Christopher staring from the dashboard. Nothing about it was vaguely familiar. It could have been something that would happen fifty years in the future, or maybe it wasn’t real at all. Maybe it was just me getting all worked up about driving, as usual. I needed to stay away from Skippy, which was no problem since just thinking about it made my stomach churn, and stick to my bicycle; again, no problem because I hated driving anyway.
I looked over at Nan. For someone who’d missed her last heart pill, this was probably not the best experience to have. She started to say something to comfort me and then began snoring again.
I clenched my jaw. No matter how good things were with Taryn, nothing could protect me. This curse always found ways to remind me who was boss.
Carefully, I pulled into our driveway and inched the boat into the garage. I helped Nan out and drew the massive wooden doors closed, then stared at the cottage. Something was going to be off in there. I felt the tingles already.
I helped Nan up the three stairs to the back of the house, and when the screen door slammed, I heard my mom’s voice. She sounded angry again. I couldn’t tell what she was saying, though, and I didn’t care. Was it me or did the tingles feel like a thunderstorm, like a thousand times worse than before Emma drowned?
“Up here,” she called. Floorboards creaked. There was a floorboard right in the doorway to my mom’s room that groaned whenever someone was standing on it. It made that noise now. She was out of her room, but just barely. Calling to me from the doorway. “Come up here.”
I figured she wanted to tell me something about what I’d found out from Taryn. She knew, obviously, since our futures were tied to each other’s. Maybe she wanted to explain herself. Apologize in person. Whatever. I wasn’t going to listen, even if she begged forgiveness. I was steel. Stone. Finished with her.
“I don’t want to hear—” I started, but stopped when I saw the look on her face. She had made it to the top stair with one white hand on the banister and was staring down at me. The shadows dug into the creases on her forehead, making her look about twenty years older, or like one of those skeletons in the haunted house at the pier. Her eyes were heavy with worry.
I started to say “What?” but before I could she whispered, “You haven’t been able to see the future yet, have you?”
I shook my head. “No, I have, I’ve seen—” Did I really want to tell her about seeing Taryn naked? Or about what happened in the car? “Why?”
“Have you seen anything from next year? Or even next month?”
I shrugged. Weird question. She knew it was so hard to tell when these future memories took place. I just inexplicably felt my bones aching in the ones where I was an old man. Or I’d catch a glimpse of my grandchild and feel this overwhelming love and pride. No, I hadn’t had any far-off memories of my future since the Emma accident, but I only caught them once in a while, when everything was still. And things had been really screwy lately. I tried to call up a memory of the future, but they never came when I wanted them to. Usually, when I least expected it, I’d see or hear or smell something and the memory would pop into my mind. “I have no—”
“You can’t, can you?”
I didn’t like the tone. She should have been begging forgiveness. Instead, she sounded like she was accusing me of something. It was the tone I should have had with her.
“That’s because you have no future,” she said. “Whatever you did to change things, Nick … now you’re the one who is going to die. Soon.”
According to my mom, Christmas was really going to suck this year. Because not only might I not live out the year, I might not live out the summer. She said that because first, she knew I had trouble remembering anything in the future anymore, and second, she saw Nan dressed in the black dress she only wore to funerals. She was wearing the cast on her arm. The only other thing she could recall was extreme grief.
Well, that was good. I’d hate for anyone to be happy at my passing.
Oh, and that it was a closed casket. Not like she would get the guts to go to her own son’s funeral, but that was what Nan told her. Which probably meant that my body would be mangled beyond recognition.
All really awesome things.
I could almost feel the jagged glass shards digging into my cheeks. An accident. The car accident I’d envisioned on my ride home.
I knew it wasn’t the Buick. The inside was all wrong. I silently told myself I wouldn’t set foot in a car again. That would do it. I hoped.
But the more I tried to see my future, the more I couldn’t.
No wonder Taryn made the memories of my future go away. No wonder she made me feel normal.
This all started when she entered my life. For some reason, because of her, I had no future.
Trouble was, the more I tried to resign myself to stay away from her, the more I felt that big hole, that emptiness. My chest tightened and ached when I thought about it. It didn’t help that I kept seeing myself kissing her, feeling my hands working through her thick platinum curls. For some reason, I couldn’t see anything in the future but that, the most improbable thing in the world.
The morning of Emma’s funeral, I put on my suit and tie. The suit was too tight. I looked like a major loser. It was only ten in the morning, and it already felt like a hundred degrees. There was no ocean breeze. I contemplated staying home about a thousand times. Then I opened up the door to the garage and climbed into the Buick.
You know those cartoons where a character is contemplating doing something, and a devil appears on one shoulder, trying to tempt him to do the bad thing, and an angel appears on the other, telling him why he should do the right thing? It was totally like that. But this time, Angel-me was telling me I needed to go and pick up Taryn, because I’d promised and it was the right thing to do. And Devil-me said I needed to go straight to the funeral, because something about Taryn was seriously screwing with my future. I went back and forth, gripping the steering wheel and mumbling to myself, until eventually the devil and the angel looked exactly the same.
Finally I just shoved the car into reverse. Gritting my teeth, I headed for the cemetery.
I knew it was a cruddy thing to do, leaving her there. I imagined her sitting on the front stoop, waiting for me. But I could explain it away. I was going to die in a car accident, right? Even though I kind of knew the Buick was safe, she’d be a moron to accept a ride with me.
It was a bright, sunny day. My limited knowledge of funerals from television and movies seemed to suggest that this was wrong; it was supposed to be raining, so much so that we would all huddle tightly around the casket in a dense forest of umbrellas. In the backseat Nan had a massive black thing, almost the size of a beach umbrella, that didn’t fold compactly like new ones did. I’d expected to use it. It would effectively seal me off from the rest of the mourners; nobody would be able to tell who was under it.
Instead, the sun shone like a spotlight pointed right on my head as I stepped out of the car and made my way across the cemetery, to the crowd. I spotted Pedro. I hadn’t seen him since that day on the beach. I didn’t think he’d have the nerve to show up, but he was probably feeling as guilty as I did. “Hey, man,” I said when I’d made my way over to him. “How’s it going?”
He nodded, looking stiff in his suit. Funny how clothes could change a person. There was a sheen of sweat mingling with the pimples on his forehead. Finally, he mumbled, “Rather be anywhere else.”
There was no doubt about it. I seconded Pedro’s emotion.
He sniffed and brought a wadded tissue to his face. Allergies, I guessed. He wasn’t the type to cry. But when he pulled the tissue away, it was covered in blood. When I looked closer, I realized there was blood on the collar of his shirt. He didn’t turn to face me, but I could see a swollen, bluish pocket on his temple and under his eye. One thing about Pedro, he was almost girlish about his appearance; he didn’t get into fights. “Whoa, man. What’s going on?”
A few people turned, saw me, and whispered. I knew it was probably, “There’s the guy who tried to revive her. The crazy one.” One old lady gave me a reproachful look and shook her head.
I’d definitely rather be anywhere else.
We stood in the last row, as far away from the rest of the mourners as possible, but suddenly Pedro faltered, almost like his knees gave out. He staggered backward. “I—can’t,” he whispered, staring at the ground.
I stared at him. For the first time I noticed there wasn’t just blood on his collar. It was all down the front of his shirt, spattering his pale blue tie. Bits of dried grass clung to the knees of his dark pants. “What? Who did that to you, man?”
“I shouldn’t have come,” he hissed. I was aware some people were beginning to turn, but then Pedro just broke into a sprint toward the line of cars. It was like he was being chased by the devil. He even looked back a few times, as if he was expecting to see Satan.
It was over ninety degrees, but I shivered. Wow. What the hell had happened to him?
The priest began to speak about finding comfort in one another. He said, “It is unexpected tragedy that brings us together today.”
“The unexpected in life is often the most difficult to deal with,” I mumbled under my breath, along with the priest. I looked over and saw Mrs. Reese with her head against someone’s shoulder. Mr. Reese, I supposed. When she pulled away, I saw that it was a younger guy. Emma’s brother, the one at Penn State. He stared ahead, unblinking, as Mrs. Reese continued to sob into his suit jacket. Mr. Reese, a white-haired version of his son, stood next to him.