Authors: Abigail Boyd
THE GRAVITY SERIES
by Abigail Boyd
Copyright 2012 Abigail Boyd
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Amazon.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
WET GRASS DAMPENEDthe knees of my jeans, but I didn't stand. The spot above Jenna's grave had grown in, matching the rest of the graveyard's turf, with no sign that the soil had been turned over. I ran my hand over the etched letters on her tombstone.
Jenna Reed. Beloved daughter, cherished friend. You left us too soon.
I could still see in my mind the somber faces — so many faces — of the funeral goers. The obscenely colorful bouquets of flowers they tossed on top of her black coffin. The red ribbon tied around her casket wreath.
In the present, the unseasonably hot June sun beamed down, striking my shoulders around my tank top, making me too warm. A tear slid down my cheek and plummeted to the grass. The fact that I was alive to complain about the heat felt like betrayal.
"Why her? Why not you?" Jenna's mother, Rachel, had shrieked at me after the casket was lowered. The priest had barely gotten finished with Jenna's last rites before Rachel stormed up to me. She'd shaken my shoulders, almost knocking me to the hard November ground, the snow biting my ankles through my tights. "Why not you? As simple as a coin toss."
The adults had pulled her off of me. My parents told me it was just the words of a grieving parent. But it was hard to forget someone wishing you had died.
I rummaged in my pocket and retrieved a lemonade bottle cap. It was the kind Jenna always drank, especially during the summer. Sunshine juice, she called it, then laughed at her cleverness, her mouth sticky with the stuff.
Every time I visited her, I always felt like I had to bring something, an offering. She'd had enough flowers for the entire graveyard. And I didn't want to give her something that would die.
So I brought things that she would have appreciated. The picture of us as kids at the water park, fat bellies poking out of our bathing suits. A tube of lipgloss in her favorite shade. Last week it was the CD she'd been saving to buy before she disappeared. The CD had vanished, too, but I didn't mind.
A small hand rested on my shoulder.
"Are you ready to go?" Theo Weaver asked quietly from behind me. She was the friend I'd made after Jenna, someone who I had expected to remain an acquaintance. Instead, she'd become my best friend. Not filling the hole Jenna had left, but instead making her own space.
"As ready as I'll ever be," I replied. I pushed myself off the ground, and followed Theo towards her car.
We'd taken driver's training a few months ago, and the Toyota Camry had been her sixteenth birthday gift. It came from both of her parents, despite their odd living situation of being in different houses on the same street. I hated being almost a year younger than everyone in my grade, but at least my friend had wheels.
It had been seven months since Jenna's body was discovered, dredged out of Hush Lake by ice fishermen. We used to spend our summers there, sticking our toes in the gritty, muddy sand, and catching turtles. Finding her had given me no closure; in fact, it had only open up my disdain wider, into a chasm.
"Is it weird that I come here?" I asked Theo as we got in the Toyota.
"It would be weird if you didn't," she said, sliding in behind the wheel. She'd chopped her gleaming, artificial red hair above her shoulders, accentuating her pixie look along with the glitter on her eyelids.
Ten minutes later, we were sitting in the air-conditioned diner area of Dante's. It was Hell's only fast food restaurant; the zoning board wouldn't allow a McDonald's or a Taco Bell within city limits. We picked a table by one of the large front windows, overlooking the end of main street. It was full of the smell of bread baking and potatoes frying. There were only a few other tables occupied, so it was quiet.
"I can't believe this year is finally over," Theo sighed, folding our order ticket into a tiny triangle. She flicked it like a football into the corner of my booth.
"I don't know what I'm going to do with myself all summer," I said honestly, bouncing ice cubes in my pop with a straw.
"What do you mean? We'll spend it together."
"You're busy with the mural, though," I said. "I don't want to interrupt that."
"Only until the end of June. Then we'll have a whole two months to ourselves."
Theo had been showing her art at my father's gallery, Erasmus, for a while now. Her sketches had generally been well-received, and she'd even sold a few, which helped put new tires on her worn car.
Her latest project was a mural, which had been Hugh's idea. A challenge, he'd called it, stepping outside of her comfort zone. He'd already taken out ads in the local paper, setting a date for the unveiling.
"But no pressure," Theo had said sarcastically, scrubbing her hands in her hair. I knew she hadn't gotten very far, pushing herself to be perfect. One thing Theo treated with the utmost seriousness was her art.
"How's it coming along, anyway?" I asked. "You haven't updated me lately."
Our order was called, and I went to pick it up. I had the feeling the interruption was buying Theo time. When I came back to the table and distributed our trays, Theo made herself busy dipping fries in a cup of barbeque sauce.
"As far as the mural, it's..." She paused, thinking. "It's just difficult. I thought I'd be up to a new challenge, but my mind goes blank whenever I pick up a paintbrush. I'm just not as able to translate what I see in my head to paints as I am to pencil."
"Maybe you're trying too hard," I offered. "Take a step back from the easel for a couple of days."
"Maybe," Theo agreed begrudgingly. She'd ordered a cheeseburger with extra bacon, and was struggling to smush it small enough to fit into her mouth. "It's all I've been thinking about lately."
"You can't let Alex be an art widow," I teased, referencing her unlikely boyfriend. I was shocked when they started dating last year: Alex was a preppy, sarcastic class clown, and Theo could be shy and lovably weird. But they'd been going strong since then. Alex was her first boyfriend, and they seemed to be crazy about each other.
"All I've been thinking about is the trial," I continued.
"That's a wee bit more important," Theo said, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart.
"They keep pushing the date back. Warwick's lawyer is requesting extensions, and he put in a not guilty plea. I've given the police department all the information I know, I just don't want to have to go up on the witness stand and relieve it all over again," I said weakly.
"It'll be okay, I promise. At least you have time to prepare for it. And they'll put him away for a long time, I'm sure. That's the best way you can help her now."
"I'm just so worried about making sure my story's straight. It's all so weird," I said.
Out of the corner of my eye, a flash of blue caught my attention. I twisted my head to peer out of the window. My heart lurched in a hard, shocked beat. A little girl in a blue raincoat was standing in the middle of the street.
The one who appeared to me last year, and didn't stop until I'd discovered her body in the school basement, wrapped in a dirty sleeping blanket.
I jerked my body off of the leather seat, eyes still fixed on the girl outside. She seemed to be staring back.
"What's wrong?" Theo asked.
I turned towards her. "There's someone —" I began, looking back through the window.
A brown van obstructed my view as it drove past. When it was gone, I saw it wasn't the girl I was thinking of. Instead, I saw a totally different girl, older, who just happened to be wearing a blue coat. She ran off down the sidewalk, laughing with her friend.
"Nevermind," I said, sliding back down. My nerves were frazzled and my appetite destroyed. "It wasn't who I thought."
On Monday of the last week before summer vacation, Theo and I were walking to class at Hawthorne High. We'd just finished lunch, and were engaged in a discussion about how our finals so far had gone. Two more remained, which for me meant Honors history and painting and drawing. My skill in the latter hadn't gotten any better, despite a year in Theo's mom's class.
"If you don't stop being hard on yourself I'm going to stick a paintbrush up your nose," Theo said, giggling.
"I'd probably be able to paint better that way," I said. "And ditto to you, Miss Perfectionist."
Theo glanced ahead of us. Her vivid green eyes became round and she slowed her pace. I followed her gaze. The popular crowd was strutting towards us. They always stuck together, like models in a trendy catalog. Ready to annihilate the unfashionable and unimportant.
Henry Rhodes, my long-ago, far-away boyfriend, commanded the center. Next to him was his (I threw up in my mouth a little every time I thought about it) girlfriend, Lainey Ford. Lainey was the reigning princess of Hawthorne. Together they were like the most expensive, flashy float in a parade.
Neither of them had spoken to me since they got together, not that I was ever buddy-buddy with Lainey. But not a word from Henry, even after Jenna had been found. Not even to say, "I'm sorry your friend is dead." Not like I expected them to be decent human beings; I had too much first-hand evidence to the contrary.
I froze, unable to move. About to be swept away by a tidal wave. For the briefest moment, Henry's brown eyes met mine. I saw nothing there, no light. The eyes of a stranger in a face I had once loved. His eyes darted away.
I expected seeing him to get easier every day. But it only had to a certain point; my emotions still went haywire when I knew he was nearby. At least I didn't feel like I was going to catch on fire anymore from my blushing cheeks.
He elicited a mix of embarrassment and regret in me, and I resented him for it. I hated another person having such a strong effect on me.
Theo wrapped her hand around my arm and steered me out of the way, around the wolf pack. They didn't so much as glance at us, caught up in their own unimportant conversations.
"Let's pretend they don't exist today," Theo whispered.
"It'll be easier when we don't have to see them," I grumbled.
It would also be easier if Henry and I didn't have so many classes together. I had to pretend I didn't sense him in the back row during history and English, and he and Lainey sat together in painting and drawing, two rows in front of me. I had to bow my head in the final class the entire hour. Watching them make goo goo eyes at each other held no interest for me.
Theo and I bid each other farewell, and I went to history for my final. I still got creeped out in Mr. Warwick's old classroom, almost as if his crimes had been committed there on the floor, instead of in the basement.
A long-time friend of my family's, he had been the one to kidnap the girls and murder them. Henry and I, following a hunch, had found him trying to dispose of their bodies in the pool equipment room. It had led to a stand-off between Warwick, Henry and I, and Warwick had pointed his gun at both of us.
I still couldn't smell chlorine without retching. I didn't think I'd ever be able to swim in a pool again.
Warwick had been replaced by a long-term substitute who was his polar opposite, an ex-military man who barked his lectures. Despite this, I could still remember Warwick roosting on the edge of his desk, telling stories. A few times I imagined blood beneath the desk, then chided myself for being so gruesome.
Sometimes I had nightmares about it. Warwick would be deep in a lecture about Native Americans and the horrifying Trail of Tears. Then he would slowly drag the dead body of a girl from behind his desk, stroking her hair as she lay splayed across his lap, lifeless gaze directed nowhere.
It wasn't a class I looked forward to anymore. I was happy when the sub slapped the final packet in front of me, because it meant I would never have to come into this room again.
When I stopped seeing visions, I didn't know what to expect. The little girls' bodies were discovered, then Jenna's, and a door slammed down on the supernatural world I'd been peering into. I was left with nothing but a heap of unanswered questions.
At the time, it had all seemed so real. Now the whole experience had fractured into distant, hollow memories. I had shakily settled on the entire thing being a product of my stressed out mind. Wishful thinking.
It didn't help that I had been on medication since the week after Jenna's funeral. The school kept insisting I see a therapist, so Claire dragged me to exactly one appointment with a pricey psychiatrist in a private office.
The appointment was scheduled for the first week of December, the ground powdered with snow. We walked into the lobby of the mental health center, between two leafy potted palms flanking the doors. Rock salt was ground into the black runner leading to the registration desk.
Claire clutched her purse to her ribcage the entire time. It wouldn't have surprised me if she'd scheduled the appointment under a pseudonym. After checking in, we sat in the waiting area, beneath a giant flatscreen advertising different mood-altering drugs.
To Claire, mental illness had always been a sign of weakness, a silent shame that one should keep to themselves. She would have rather swept Jenna away, like all the dirt in the house she eradicated.
Her face read shame beneath the layers of carefully-applied foundation and wrinkle filler. She looked like she'd like nothing better than to leave me there, abandon me as a lost cause. I felt just as bad, because it was my broken brain that made her feel that way.
The doctor's name sounded Norwegian, and I mangled it every time I tried to pronounce it. In my head, I referred to her as Dr. N. A pouf of gray-blonde hair sprouted from her scalp, and doll-sized glasses perched on her nasal bridge.
"How about you start by sharing how you feel right now?" Dr. N asked me after I'd answered her polite inquiries about school and home with "fine" and "fine".
"I don't feel anything," I said bluntly. Not completely true. But I couldn't pick out one specific feeling from the vast soup that my emotions had become.
"Just tell her," Claire insisted, still using her purse like a shield. "That's why we're here."
She patted my hand, a gesture that belonged to someone else's mom.
"I am telling her," I insisted.
"This is a safe place, Ariel," Dr. N interjected.
I crossed my arms over my chest. I didn't feel safe. I felt ganged up on.
The cramped office smelled of menthol and the strong, almost sour bowl of potpourri on her desk. Puzzle boxes and coloring books were crammed into a row of oak bookcases, looking somehow ominous among the medical textbooks.
Claire looked at me expectantly with bloodshot eyes. She sighed as though I were disappointing her. She was full of heavy sighs, erupting like gasps of steam letting pressure off of a volcano.
"Let's try this instead, Ariel," Dr. N said. "Describe the chain of events that brought you here. Your mom says you like reading. So tell me a story, Ariel."
Her speech was accompanied by constant hand gestures. If she said my name one more time, I was gonna scream. Leaning back in her overstuffed chair, she waited for me to speak.
I looked up, trying to gather my thoughts. The ceiling was smudged with yellow stains. I wondered if Dr. N smoked behind closed doors, maybe hid an ashtray out on the window ledge. I wanted her to be flawed.
"My best friend Jenna was murdered," I began, taking care to keep my voice steady. I swallowed the marble-hard lump in my throat. "My teacher is the one that killed her. He almost shot me, too."
Dr. N's expression didn't change. I wondered if she actually heard what I was saying. She was master of the dispassionate response.
"And the boy I had a...thing for, used me and dumped me for his rich girlfriend, who is also my enemy." I stared at the ceiling again. Definitely nicotine stains, concentrated above her wing-back chair. "If you can have mortal enemies as a Sophomore."
Both Dr. N and Claire were silent. Talking about those things made me feel intensely raw and vulnerable, and I wanted to stuff all the words back in to the secret place where my thoughts were stored.
"So my life sucks. If I can be so blunt." Bitterness soaked my voice. "But I'm still going. I have not missed a day of school, other than when said enemy broke my nose. I've kept my grades up, so I don't know why Claire is complaining. And being here is not going to help me."
Neither woman said a word in response. Both of them looked away from me, as though I were too messed up to see straight on. Claire sniffled like she was holding back tears. She never cried, and the fact that she might start then deeply disturbed me.
"Can I go now?" I asked quietly.
"Ariel!" Claire barked. I jumped, guilt cutting me down to size. "What's wrong with you? The doctor is trying to help you. You need help. We all do."
She ran her hand through her hair, which was starting to come undone from her careful up-do. Another sigh erupted from within her. Another burst of steam.
"It's fine, Claire," Dr. N said, raising a lined palm. Claire pinched her lips together, creases forming around her mouth that leached her lipstick.
"I don't like to talk about myself," I said. "It's not like I'm unburdening my mind or however it's supposed to feel. I just feel like I'm betraying myself."
Dr. N readjusted the world's smallest glasses. A prescription pad had appeared in her hands. "I think you need a little help. There's no shame in that, like your mom was saying. I'm going to write a prescription for a benzodiazepine. It's a safe medication that will lessen your stress and help you cope."
The prescription tore off. She handed it to Claire, whose head was bobbing like a dashboard ornament on a bumpy road. I still couldn't shake the paranoid feeling that they were conspiring against me.
"And then maybe after you adjust, we can work on why you feel like so much of an outsider," Dr. N said.
But there was no after. We never went back to the mental health center. Claire always came up with a justifiable excuse. She updated Dr. N via phone progress reports, in which she talked in melodramatic tones and used phrases like "firm recovery." That's how my pills kept magically getting refilled.
The matter had been dealt with. And all of these months later, in her mind, things were just fine.
Autopilot was my way of getting through home life. Not much different than at school. When I came home from my finals, I helped Hugh prepare dinner. After we'd eaten, the TV on to make up for lack of conversation, I cleaned up the dishes.
Ten minutes later, I stood in the downstairs bathroom, with one of the little white benzo pills in my palm. The exhaust fan in the ceiling buzzed noisily.
I hated the way the meds made me feel, like half of my brain was asleep. Unbeknownst to Claire, I'd been slowly lowering the dosage every week for the last few months, from three pills at the start to the half pill I took daily now.
Slowly, I'd begun to come out of the walking slumber I'd been living in. It was like popping a bubble that had been around my head: colors were brighter than I remembered them, sounds sharper. And the feelings that I had forgotten how to feel came rushing back, sometimes too fast for comfort.
The sparkling, commercial clean mirror reflected my face back at me. Deep shadows aged my hazel eyes, the black hair I'd kept up on dying a disheveled, shapeless mass. Blue veins crisscrossed beneath my translucent skin. Not my prettiest look.
Tipping my palm towards the toilet, I tried to pretend I wasn't doing it on purpose. The tiny tablet plopped on the water and dissolved. I met my eyes in the mirror, my reflection a silent accomplice.
"Oops," I whispered.
I picked up the orange prescription bottle and, before I could change my mind, shook out the remaining pills, flushing them away. Capping the bottle, I slid it into my pajama pocket, and shut off the light. I clicked the bathroom door shut and waited for my body chemistry to realize something was amiss.
MY SLEEP THATnight was plagued by shifting, restless dreams. When I woke up in the morning, my neck was stiff, like I'd slept on a mattress stuffed with rocks. I had to drag my tired body through school.
Classes were just a formality now that were were done with finals. Still, we had to go through the motions. God forbid they not squeeze every ounce out of us they could, even though it meant crossword puzzles and movies all day.
An office attendant appeared at the door during English. Ms. Fellows, the teacher, didn't stand or acknowledge her, too busy playing mahjong on her computer. The attendant had to shout across the room.
"Ariel Donovan!" She seemed irritated, clutching a stack of manila folders. "I need Ariel to come down to the office."
I winced. What now?
"Ariel, go," Ms. Fellows commanded, only briefly glancing up.
Leaving my books behind, I stood and followed the attendant. On the way out the door, I glanced back. Henry's head was lowered above paperclips he was bending on his desk. But he was watching me. I could see his cautious eyes through his bangs.
The attendant was already halfway down the hall, and I rushed to catch up. She was a short, nondescript woman in a bright red vest. Her heels clicked steadily as I followed her.
"Let's go," she said, sounding more like she was talking to herself than to me.
The last time I'd been taken down to the office, it was to find out about Jenna. I wasn't thrilled by the prospect of returning. Even the sight of the front desk reminded me of that dreadful day, when I'd burst into tears and didn't stop until the wake.
"Did anything bad happen?" I blurted out, unable to contain myself. Not knowing was the worst, and I'd spent enough of my life not knowing things. A curious burning feeling crept along the back of my neck and arms.
"What?" she asked, frowning and cradling the folders closer. "No, nothing bad. You kids and your morbid fantasies. This is just a formality. Principal McPherson needs to tie up some loose ends before the school year finishes out."
I wondered if this woman knew how to use her smiling muscles. My shoulders relaxed, just as I realized they were tensed. No one was hurt. No one had died.
But then what could possibly involve me? I'd tried to fly under the radar as much as I could, only answering questions when I was called on, never raising a fuss.
Once we reached administration, she ushered me into McPherson's office and shut the door. McPherson didn't look up from behind his desk, the bald spot on the crown of his head gleaming. For once, his hideous retro jacket was off, slung on the chair back.
"Have a seat, Miss Donovan," he said apathetically, waving his hand like he was shooing a fly. I did as I was told, sitting back to await whatever fate he had in store for me.
The office was ultra-organized, neat white labels sorting all the shelves. Each office supply had a place, including paperclips and white-out. Garish paintings of zombie-like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hung facing each other on opposite walls. An enormous brass eagle spread its wings on the bookshelf.
McPherson scooped up a stack of papers, tapped them straight, and set them over by a gargantuan shredder in the corner. I thought of a great Senior prank: coming in and switching all the labels. I filed it away for a couple years.
"Looks like you've redecorated since my last visit," I observed.
He grunted. "I didn't do the decorating. They hired somebody."
"I was gonna say, it looks a bit...overstated for someone who prefers simplicity."
He cocked one bushy, gray-streaked eyebrow. I wondered if I'd given too much away. Theo and I had gone snooping after him a while back, when we thought he was up to no good. But he'd never let on whether or not he'd discovered that.
"Wait, who's they?" I asked.
He ignored my question, rolling the top desk drawer open and pulling out a computer printout. He slid the paper towards me.
"What's this?" I asked.
"For what incident?"
"For the accident that happened in PE class last November," McPherson said matter-of-factly.
He slid a ballpoint pen out of his shirt pocket, and clicked the point out, setting it on top of the official-looking form.
"You mean when Lainey broke my nose with a tennis ball?" I asked sarcastically. "I thought we had forgotten all about it."
"Yes, that. Accidentally," he reiterated. He was being very careful to keep saying that.
I scoffed loudly. But he remained passive, lacing his fingers together over his ample stomach.
"The school certainly took its sweet time getting around to it," I said, gripping the form. I didn't know what game McPherson was up to, but his intentions weren't innocent. "Should I be filling this out without my parents present?"
The zombie presidents glared at me, awaiting my compliance. I couldn't tell if their green skin was due to the oil paint aging or the original intent of the patriotic artist.
"I'll tell you what," McPherson said. "Read over the form. If there's anything that makes you question it, or causes you to be the least bit comfortable, then don't sign. But I assure you, it's simply a waiver. A disclaimer."
This new calm, cooperative McPherson was freaking me out. Had my parents won the lottery and not told me?
I sighed and looked over the form, curious as to what was so important as to prompt this little visit. The brief paragraphs merely stated the bare facts, or at least the school's official version of the bare facts.
It had been gym class, we were playing tennis. Lainey "accidentally" hit the ball into my nose, causing me to fall down and knocking me out. They hadn't seen the cold-blooded look she'd given me right before whipping her racket back. If they had, they never would have used the word accidental.
The school also hadn't taken into consideration the fact that I was dating the boy Lainey had wanted to get her claws into from day one. Or the fact that she had eventually gotten him. But that made sense; the administration viewed our little student dramas as pithy and unimportant, no matter how huge they were in our own lives.
McPherson stood up, retrieving a handful of brown paper towels and a bottle of glass cleaner. He twisted the blinds on the lone window, revealing a pile of dead flies on the sill. His obsession with cleanliness reminded me of Claire.
I picked up the pen and scrawled my signature, still a work in progress. The form didn't contain anything Hugh and Claire didn't know about. The matter had long since been dropped in our house, why not drop it all the way? I reasoned.
At least my nose had healed up. I had checked it every day in the mirror for months, until I could no longer notice the bump that the tennis ball had raised.
Plus, I just wanted out of McPherson's lair. Being this close to him always spooked me. He still had his back to me, busy cleaning off the offending flies.
"You don't like me much." The words just slipped out. I didn't know why I even said it, but it seemed so obvious.
"What gave you that impression?" McPherson asked flatly, not turning around. He picked up a trash can and tossed the paper towels in.
"You did. You always give me that impression," I said, unable to zip up my trap.
The leather chair creaked as McPherson settled himself back in it. He snatched at his jacket as it began sliding off of the back.
"Did you sign?"
I handed him the paper in answer. He gave it only a cursory glance, then slid it into a file folder.
I'd begun to feel strangely anxious. Not just the general nerves I'd noticed when I woke up, but like something horrible was happening, when nothing much was happening at all. My vision started to blur, as though I'd been staring into the sun. The feelings had been creeping up on me as I'd been sitting there.
I really wanted out of the cramped, sterile room. My right leg bounced up and down, and I felt unable to control the urge to keep doing it. In my head, I could see the zombie presidents coming alive, reaching their bony hands out to grip the picture frames, diseased flesh peeling off in clumps...
"Ariel, there are many types of people in this world," McPherson said in an unusually soft voice.
Shut up and let me go, my brain shot back. But my curiosity won out again, and I kept mum.
He glanced upwards towards the ceiling, swiveling back and forth in his chair. "Not all of those people will get along, or find one another favorable. But the world keeps turning, regardless of what we want."
"Yeah," I said. Weirdo.
"Everyone has to know their place in the scheme of things. And accept it for what it is," he continued, lost in his own speech. "The mouse is just as important as the cat. The insect is just as important as the person who destroys it."
I blinked, staring blankly at him. After a minute, I asked, "Is that all you needed?"
He nodded towards the ceiling. That's how I left him.
The uncomfortable feeling didn't go away for the rest of the day. It ebbed and flowed in strength, but it was always there.
As soon as I got home, I was on the internet, looking up benzo withdrawal. Apparently, my symptoms were extremely common. That didn't comfort me very much, especially since the website claimed they could last for months.
I was careful to delete the history. I didn't need Claire seeing that particular research.
At dinner, my parents and I were eating in silence. I picked at my food, mostly drinking water as I couldn't seem to get enough. I contemplated bringing up the form, but I didn't want to have to deal with them if they got pissed off. They still thought I was five years old, in need of twenty-four hour protection from myself and the bad, bad world.
"Pass the salt," Hugh asked my mother.
"You already put salt on your plate," Claire said, but she passed the shaker anyway.
I caught Hugh giving Claire the evil eye when she wasn't looking. It wasn't good to stand between the man and sodium.
Cottonmouth ruined any appetite I may have had. Hugh and Claire were discussing work, as usual. They both seemed tense, although whether it was from job stress, or if I was just seeing them through the filter of my own feelings, I couldn't tell.
"How is Theo doing with her painting?" Hugh asked me, splitting apart a roll. "I'm excited to see it. She's like my own personal ball of clay. I've never had a kid think I was such hot stuff."
"Referring to yourself as hot stuff isn't helping," I said. It hurt my mouth to talk. My jaw was locked up tightly. "She's getting frustrated. But she's Theo; she'll do a great job. She'd make fruit look amazing."
"I wouldn't have brought up the idea if I didn't think that," Hugh said. "Theo's going to go places and leave us all in the dust."
"She was actually talking about maybe heading out to the mall this weekend," I said, although all I wanted to do at this point was curl up in my bed and never come out. It was something Theo had brought up that day in class, on my suggestion about stepping away from the easel.
"You're not going to go this weekend, are you?" Claire asked, looking up.
"I...It was just an idea, I don't know yet." I stammered. "What's bad about this weekend?" Since Jenna's disappearance became her death, they had gone from being overprotective to downright prison wardens.
"I just mean, the mall's forty five minutes away. And it's in the bad part of town."
"It's in the business part of town," I countered, but arguing with my mother was just making me feel worse. "I figured she could use a break. She's getting painter's block or something."
"It's a nice idea," Hugh said, and left it at that. "I've been having an awful lot of trouble finishing my own concepts, lately. Maybe it's something in the air."
"Sure, maybe you need a vacation from scribbling," Claire said sarcastically. Hugh grinned at her, but I got the strong impression, as usual, that Claire didn't take Hugh's business as seriously as hers.
After I pushed around my hamburger for a few more minutes, I stood up.
"Can I be excused? I'm pretty tired, and tomorrow's my last day." I was trying to sound casual, but the plate was shaking a little as I held it.
"Are you feeling sick? You look a little green." Claire said.
I shook my head, although I knew she was right. I felt green. "Not sick. Just sleepy. I thought I'd get to bed early."
Neither of them noticed I'd barely touched my food. They went back to talking about an unprepared intern at Claire's insurance company, and how many days they had put up with her before letting her go.
I couldn't be around people right now, especially not my parents. I ran down the stairs and into my room, diving on top of the green and blue comforter. But I found I couldn't rest, either. When I closed my eyes, I felt bugs crawling around my skin.
Bad thoughts began popping into my head unbidden. I tried deep breathing, but it didn't help, and if anything made me woozier, enhancing the lightheaded feeling.
Maybe this withdrawal would lead to me getting really sick. Maybe I would have to be taken to the emergency room, have needles and tubes stabbed and looped through my body like a bad science experiment.
Maybe Henry had been dating Lainey the entire time, and they met up every day to laugh at all my foolish attempts at flirting. Maybe every word he'd said and every kiss we'd shared was an utter lie.
And Jenna...how much suffering had she endured before she died? The newspapers reported she had cuts on her body, even though her official cause of death was drowning. So did the little girls, and Alyssa and Susan's throats had been cut. Every single report mentioned torture.
I jumped off the bed and began pacing my room. My heart beat strange and unfamiliar like bird wings. I had to stop stressing so much about things I had no control of, and no way of knowing the answer to.
For no real reason at all, I looked at the wall above my desk, where the lamp cast a fractured halo. Months and months ago, I'd heard a knocking sound there, one I'd never identified the source to. I knew it had something to do with the ghosts I was seeing. I hadn't heard it since Jenna was found.
I stood and pressed my ear against the wall, hearing nothing but my own frantic pulse. Shutting my eyes, I tried to focus. To make out any kind of sound that wasn't the dishwasher running or voices upstairs.
But no sound came. And the more I wished for a sign, the more the silence filled my ears.
Hours passed as I ticked off the seconds. I finally began slipping in and out of consciousness, after laying on my side with a pencil between my teeth for a while. I thought it might help on the off chance I had a seizure. I remembered seeing in on some medical drama.
It wasn't a restful sleep. Every few minutes, my body would force me awake. Either because I randomly stopped breathing, or when blood would rush to my temples, making me feel like I was swimming in it.
A distorted dream floated into my head. Angry, turgid colors twirled and blinked like the lights of a carnival. Scarlet to orange, to blinding neon yellow, back to orange, then to the ruby red again.
My feet were moving. Solid ground held me up, though the scenery continued to shift. The world began to come into focus, more solid and recognizable as edges and corners appeared.
The warped rainbow melted away into flat, greenish-gray walls. I was in Hawthorne High School's basement, altered slightly in its dream state. It stank of chlorine, and I waited for the urge to hurl. It didn't effect me while sleeping, apparently.
A wall sprang up before me, the barren cement undulating as though it had just been poured. I turned, and yelped. I was face to face with Warwick.
He tilted to and fro before me, his eyes too pronounced, like a anime character. The pupils were stricken with a maddening look, the same one I'd seen right before he'd pointed the barrel of his gun at me. It struck me as grim and ironic how familiar his face was. Like a member of my own family.
I parted my lips to speak. His hand tangled in my hair, grabbing the long strands in a death grip, and wrenching me backwards. I thought people weren't supposed to feel pain in dreams. But I felt every pinch and twist. The world tilted sideways, making me dizzy.
I could make out the blurry boxes of pool equipment, the containers of chemicals with skulls and crossbones on the labels.
"There are no friends, when the Master comes to earth," Warwick said, his voice echoing through my ears like they were full of water.
The gun glinted in his free hand. Hello, old friend. I've been expecting you. I knew this scene. I'd lived it. I'd even relived it before in dreams. Was I still dreaming?
Then, breaking from the sequential events in my memory, Warwick dropped the gun. It clattered and spun on the floor like a wound-up top.
His mad slate eyes bore into mine. "Hell is closer than you think, Ariel," he said.
ABOVE ME, STARSglowed. Theo had stuck the plastic ones to my ceiling months ago. I blinked, then raised my torso. I stood on weak jelly legs, before my brain had even gotten a chance to catch up.
I still felt out of it, I realized, as I wiggled my limbs. The bugs continued creeping across my skin, building nests in my pores. But the dream had somehow cleared my mind. I didn't feel as close to death's door as I had at dinner.
The dark made the dream seem too close, too recent. I leaned over and flipped on the desk lamp. I had to pinch both cheeks several times, just to reassure myself this was reality, and the nightmare I'd left behind was truly in my distant past.
The final phrase reverberated in my thoughts, in my own voice. Hell is closer than you think.
Warwick had said it to me last year, just like in the dream. In the basement, before he tried, and failed, to do away with me, before Henry jumped in to get his attention.
That was someone I needed to block completely out. It was yet another contradiction, that Henry would risk his life for me and then cast me aside for to be Lainey's lapdog.
At the time, I'd brushed off Warwick's words. Of course Hell was close, we lived in it.
But now I realized the phrase had rung familiar at the time. I'd seen it somewhere else. I hadn't made the connection back then, too overwhelmed with my narrow escape from death and the discovery of the girls' bodies. Too much had happened too quickly.
I kicked the piles of unattended laundry on the floor. They were a testament to my utter lack of giving a crap, considering the laundry room was just across the hall. My room was tiny, full of a lifetime of collections I'd started and given up on, and habits I'd broken just to pick up again.
I'd seen the phrase written somewhere. Scrawled sloppily along an uneven surface. I could almost picture the words. Almost.
Scrambling for more details, I shut my sleep-heavy eyes. Who had been there with me? Theo, definitely, but Theo was always around, so that didn't narrow it down. Alex. Before they were dating, as I remembered them snarking at the time, and not in a loving couple kind of way.
Realization hit me and I snapped my fingers. The sound was uncomfortably loud in the sleeping house, and I wondered if I'd wake my parents. Then I realized how unrealistic that was, being as they were two flights above me. Claire may have been observant, but she wasn't the psychic one.
The orphanage. The phrase been spray-painted on the back outside wall of the Dexter Orphanage, and I'd noticed it last year when we sneaked it to do a seance. I had no idea what the connection between Warwick and the orphanage could be, since he told me the place was dangerous and should be torn down.
I dreamed about it for a reason, I was certain. Maybe I was reaching, making something out of nothing, but I wasn't about to entertain that possibility. There was something more to this revelation.
Go back to sleep, warned the logical part of my brain. You can figure this out tomorrow. Preferably with someone sane to bounce ideas off of.
Good luck with that, the much stronger, irrational part of my brain fired back.
3:00 AM glowed bright green on the alarm clock. I yanked the rumpled comforter over the mashed pillows, to give the appearance of someone beneath. This was the only time that I wouldn't have a parent or someone else hovering over me. As unsafe as it seemed to go out in the middle of the night, I had to check it out.
I knew it was a stupid idea. I didn't care.
Rummaging through my disorganized dresser, I pulled out an old black sweatshirt and dark gray pants. Once I had changed out of the school clothes I'd never bothered to take off, I straightened my spine and assessed my physical state. The jitters and nerves had subsided, for the most part. My blood could have been replaced by gallons of Gatorade.
I stopped only for a moment at the french doors, sliding one side open as quietly as possible. I winced when the hinge squeaked a little. But all was silent upstairs. Without another thought, I slipped into the summer night.
Outside, the darkness was all-encompassing and heavy. The buzzing insects combined with the rush of far-off cars on the expressway. Night music. I had only rarely heard it before, through opened windows and on car rides home.
It felt like my world alone, free and dangerous. Once I passed the end of our driveway, it was like a different planet. My footsteps sounded unbearably loud, making me extremely alert. Every shadow seemed to move and breath.
The streets were empty of both people and traffic. Cars rested in driveways. Dark houses stood as silent monuments, silhouettes against the flat sheet of gray clouds. I made my way on the sidewalk, as swiftly as I could. I kept switching to the edge of lawn grass, trying to quiet my deafening footsteps.
Mosquitoes dive-bombed every bare spot of my skin. I swatted my neck, momentarily distracted by another sting. Stupid itchy bites.
The yellow glow of headlights crested a hill in the distance. Panicking, I dove behind a row of scrubby, unkempt bushes. It wasn't thick protection; it was like having a shield full of holes. If the car drove close enough, I'd easily be visible.
My heart beat hard and uneven, and the burning feeling I'd felt in McPherson's office started up on my scalp, like a sunburn. It took everything to keep still, as a wave of my earlier anxiety came back.
Please, please don't let me get caught, I begged soundlessly. I'm so close.
Sanitarium Road, the dirt road on which the orphanage resided, was mere minutes away. The grinding of the car's motor crept closer. Was it my imagination or was the driver slowing down? I thought I heard the squeal of breaks.
I dug my fingers into the dirt on either side of me, and held my breath. You can't see me.
The lone car rolled past my hiding spot and was gone. I stayed in place, still breathing heavily. Still waiting. But I was alone on the road again. The driver hadn't spotted me.
Crouching up from my hiding spot, I brushed dried grass and dirt off my pants and untangled my hair from the spines on the bushes. Sweat trickled off my forehead and I wiped my sweatshirt sleeve across my brow.
I no longer took my sweet time strolling the street. I ran as fast as I could.
The Dexter Orphanage seemed different when I arrived. I couldn't put my finger on the reason why, exactly. But the front of the building, rising out of the dark like a nightmare, seemed more solid. Even with its broken windows and caving roof, it was sturdier. Stronger.
The wrought iron gate gave way. An instantly familiar groan issued from its century-old hinges. A shiver rippled through me, in no way related to the temperature.
A new sign reading SOLD stuck out of the ground on a post. Just last year, whoever had owned it had set up a haunted house. I wondered if the new owners would continue that tradition, or merely tear the old wreck down. It also occurred to me that someone might be inside, watching me trespass. But I realized I didn't much care, and I would be quick.
I was wasting time I didn't have. Hedging around the side of the building, I patted my pocket for my little pink emergency flashlight. I brought it out but didn't turn it on yet. I just wanted to have it in hand, in case something jumped out at me.
My hand brushed against the building's gritty brick. I snatched it back. For a brief second, it had felt like something else. Like rough, calloused skin. Pulling at my sleeve absentmindedly with my teeth, I thought about how alone I was out here. Just me and the old place.
You are ridiculous, Ariel. Although I had no desire to touch the brick again, I forced myself to run my fingers over it. It felt like regular old brick this time, bumpy and dry.
But I didn't forget what I'd felt before.
Rushing around the back, I clicked the flashlight on. This was it; the moment of discovery. A sudden, unbidden burst of excitement rose in me. Maybe the words would be glowing. Maybe I'd find a secret panel or something.
My hopes were dashed the instant I shined the flashlight beam on the wall. The entire surface of the building had been scrubbed thoroughly. Maybe even power-washed, too. Heavy tarps had been stapled at every inch over the broken windows. It was hard to imagine my friends and I had ever used those windows to sneak in.
No graffiti remained. No trace of the paint that had once defaced the wall. I plucked tiny fibers of yellow sponge left behind in the grit. Mission failed.
I couldn't move for several seconds, maybe minutes. I just stood there like an idiot, the flashlight shining a bright circle on nothing. How could my trip have been wasted? I took a foolish risk, walking all the way there, and had nothing to show for it. Why hadn't I made the connection between what Warwick had said and what I'd seen sooner?
At least the mosquitoes had stopped attacking. Now that I looked around, there weren't any insects at all. No signs of life. The trees were still. Even the stars were hidden by the humid clouds, only a few holes from which the dark sky leered.
The lonely feeling became stronger. What had before made me feel free now just made me feel vulnerable. I was so far from home. I turned and slowly began retracing my steps. I had to stop chasing smoke trails, before I stepped into a fire.
Another hole parted the clouds above. The nearly full moon shone a spotlight on me. I froze, about halfway back to the front of the building. The orphanage had no close neighbors, and tall trees lined the fence. But I still worried I'd be seen. There was no sign anyone had occupied the orphanage yet, but I couldn't be too sure.
The dead child's mouth is a screaming hole if I die here today I'll never get out
The awful image, a swirling wasteland of a mouth, intense hungry darkness, had flashed in my brain. I couldn't remember seeing such a thing, yet it was a memory. It must have been from one of the horror movies I'd seen. It must've been.
I was standing parallel to the caretaker's shed. The building was sagging towards the earth, having taken a beating from the Michigan weather. The jackpine that stood guard before it had grown even more twisted and bushy, tangling within itself. Like the tree had lost its mind.
I have got to get out of here. But my legs wouldn't move. Shadows cast by the still-shining moon made it appear that the shed door was cracked. I squinted. It wasn't an illusion. The door was open a sliver.
Almost like it was extending an invitation.
I couldn't stop my feet from wandering over. I peered around me for any sign of being watched, or being caught. But I was still alone. So alone. Always alone, aren't you, Ariel? Even when there are others around...
It was almost like someone else's voice was putting words into my head. I tried to clear my thoughts and focus. I reached out and pulled the door open, stepping inside.
The next thing I knew, I was walking into my basement. I froze with my hand still on the handle. I was just at the orphanage, what felt like literally a second ago. How was I back here?
I tried to think, but it was like a wall had thrown itself up in my short term memory. I couldn't remember anything, after I'd opened the shed door. And it didn't feel like any time had passed. But I was back at my house, like I'd never left.
My head throbbed like crazy. I rubbed the temples with the heels of both hands. I'd never blacked out like this. I'd had a few brief times a year ago when I'd lost moments, minutes of time, one during the seance in which everyone thought (mistakenly) that I'd had a seizure.
But nothing like this. I must have been so tired that I didn't remember walking home. It could have been the benzo withdrawal messing with my memory, I surmised. Not feeling in control of my own brain frightened me.
Outside the glass door panes, the world was beginning to take on the pale shade of approaching dawn. That meant there was at least an hour I couldn't account for. Maybe longer. That scared me even more.
In my room, I pulled the bed spread down and slipped off my tennis shoes. I had to try to sleep. School was in a couple of hours, whether I had rested or not. And I just wanted to forget my stupid night time excursion.
A monstrous thudding erupted, shaking the walls from its intensity. Banging came from every direction at once, yet nowhere in particular. I backed out of the door and into the hallway, my shoulders hitting the drywall. Sliding towards the floor, I cowered and covered my ears. It sounded like the house was collapsing down around me.
Shutting my eyes, I buried my face between my knees. Tiny mewling sounds of fear escaped my mouth. The knocking continued, drilling into my brain. I couldn't take it anymore. If it kept up, I would go insane.
And then the sound swallowed itself up. I brought my hands down and listened. It had become a faint, steady rapping. An ordinary sound, caused by a person. Listening closely, I realized it was coming from the french doors.
Back in the main basement, I couldn't see anything outside. The porch light had burnt out months ago and Hugh hadn't gotten around to replacing it. The early morning fog was impenetrable, hazier with the light of the rising sun.
Unnatural shadows had gathered just outside. Whatever lay beyond was a guess. I swallowed in my dry throat, and crept closer. I threw the lock open. The door slid open with a rush of strange, bitter-scented air.
"Finally!" Jenna exclaimed, marching into the room and regarding me with her hands on her slender hips. "I've been knocking forever!"
AIR RATTLED AROUNDuselessly in my lungs. I was on the verge of hyperventilating, but no matter how deeply I breathed, I couldn't get enough oxygen. I clutched my hands in an unnatural position up by my heart, kneading my knuckles with numb fingers.
Jenna had sprawled on my bed, curly hair like snakes across the lump of pillows. She was currently investigating her nails.
"These hearts took so long to paint, I'm glad they're not chipping," she said to herself.
She looked so real. I was standing just inside the room, and had decided I was officially nuts, medication or not. Commit me now, because this was crazy.
She still wore the same clothes as the night she disappeared, just like when I'd seen her in visions and dreams. But that had felt far away, almost like something out of a fable. The fairy godmother who visits in the night, albeit the goth, spooky version. This was dangerous and up close.
I'd believed in ghosts before, misty apparitions and restless spirits. Maybe I still did. But not this. Because she looked as real as a flesh and blood, living person.
"No. You can't be here. No. You can't be here." I repeated it over and over, a mantra.
"What's up with you?" Jenna asked casually, frowning. I couldn't look away from her. I was afraid she would disappear if I blinked.
"You can't be here," I repeated again, this time more loudly. Her frown deepened into a scowl.
"Why not?" she demanded. "I came back to see you. That's what you wanted. Am I not invited over anymore or something?"
The last part was said entirely in sarcasm. Like she'd ever not be invited over; we practically lived at each others' houses. When she was alive.
"It's not that..." I said, desperately trying to make sense of things. Any moment I was going to snap entirely.
"I know you were mad. It was a fight. That's why I came back," Jenna explained, sitting up a little. She was looking at the ceiling. "When did you put those stars up?"
"Never mind about that," I said sharply. I tried desperately to cling to the truth and not get sucked into this fantasy.
"Well, anyway, I get that you were pissed. I was knocking on those doors for hours, I swear. Were you just ignoring me or did you not hear me?"
I thought back, all those months ago. The knocking on the wall. Had it been Jenna the whole time, trying to get through to me?
"What is the matter with you?" she continued, sitting up and dangling her legs over the edge of the mattress. Nothing on the bed so much as wiggled, the frame was still, the comforter rumpled but unmoving. "Did somebody die?"
A disgusted laugh burbled up my throat. My hip hit the doorknob just as I realized I was backing away. Part of me was afraid of her, I realized. The pain in my hip felt far away.
"You died, Jenna." I finally answered. "You're dead."
She raised her penciled eyebrows in disbelief. I expected her to freak out.
"Stop being weird," she scoffed. "You watch too many of those stupid horror movies, Ariel, I'm telling you. They rot your brain."
"I'm not kidding," I said. "You walked out a year ago and never came back. They found your body in the lake."
The lack of tears shocked me as I recounted the facts this time. After Jenna disappeared, until they found her, I hadn't been able to cry. Then, when I heard they'd found her body, all the tears I had kept bottled up poured out. I often missed the ability to keep my eyes dry.
And now that she was right here, the sad emotions felt distant, as though related to something else entirely.
"I went to your funeral," I continued softly. "I watched them lower your coffin into the ground and throw dirt of top. Whatever you are now, a spirit, a ghost..."
"How am I having this conversation with you if I'm dead, freak show?" Jenna asked, irritation flaring again. The necklace bearing her name jiggled against her collarbone. I had forgotten how quick her temper was. One of the few things she and Theo had in common, actually.
"I don't know," I admitted. "But I've seen ghosts before."
"Oh, so you're just crazy," Jenna said, crossing her arms. But it was in the teasing tone of voice I knew so well, the one that used to pick on me for pairing that shirt with those pants.
"It's very possible I am, yeah," I said flatly. "But its possible I just see dead people."
She laughed, and her laughter broke my heart.
"Wow, now you're even quoting from movies," she exclaimed. Still giggling, she wiped her eyes beneath mascaraed lashes. "Get some better source material, chica."
"Ariel! I need to speak with you!" All that wasted air rushed out in a gust as my breath caught. Claire was yelling at me, her voice cutting like a siren through the ceiling. For all I knew, she'd been yelling my name for a while.
The last thing I needed was my irate, overbearing mother stomping down the stairs right now, tackling me like a board meeting. I didn't know what would be worse — if she found me ranting alone like a lunatic, or if she saw Jenna there.
"I'll be right back," I said, holding my hands up to stall my friend. I dashed into the hall, nearly tripping over a stack of boxes. At the stairs, I paused with one foot on the bottom step. I went back and leaned in my open doorway. Jenna still sat motionless on my bed, staring at the maniac that was me.
"Don't disappear," I said. Then I scrambled back out.
"I won't disappear, because I'm not a damn ghost!" I heard her call behind me, followed by a string of more colorful four letter words.
I ran up the stairs, self-consciously scrubbing my cheeks. I was still wearing my sweat clothes, which wasn't all that unusual for me to sleep in. Sans the mud on the knees. How they got so dirty, I couldn't remember. I wondered if old Hawkeye Claire would comment on it.
What if she had been awake, after all? And she'd just been waiting for me to come back home so that she could read me the riot act...she could be vindictive, I'd seen it directed against her twin sister, my Aunt Corinne.
But when I reached the top of the stairs, she was dressed and ready for work, clutching her briefcase and laptop bag with one hand.
"There you are. You would sleep through the apocalypse," she chastised me.
"What —" I began, but she was in a hurry, puttering around the house and looking through me like clear glass.
"I just wanted to let you know the game plan. For once school is done."
"Game plan?" I asked. This was her big serious matter? The hysterical urge to giggle was almost impossible to resist. But somehow I kept mum.
"Yes. It would benefit everyone in this household if you started doing more chores around here. Hugh and I have been working later hours, and it's not going to let up anytime soon. Especially since your father insists on being there for every routine detail at his gallery, even when Gwen is more than capable of taking care of..."
"Claire, the point?" I asked impatiently.
"When you get out of school," she continued, "There's a list of chores on the fridge. I won't be home until close to dark, so you and your father need to forage, okay?"
She kissed my cheek, leaving a sticky imprint of gloss. My heart skipped a beat as she gazed into my eyes. Two frown lines she'd recently tried to Botox away appeared between her brows.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine.. I just woke up," I said, looking away from her penetrating stare.
I bet she thought I was on drugs, but since technically those drugs had been prescribed to me, there wasn't much she could say. It would be a typical Claire crisis, though.
We exchanged goodbyes and she rushed out. The strong smell of her perfume lingered behind. As soon as I heard her car pull out of the driveway, I ran back downstairs.
I didn't stop until I reached my room. It was empty.
"Jenna?" I called out. I pushed the door wide open on its hinges so it banged the wall. She said she wouldn't leave. I looked around, behind the bed, but she wasn't anywhere. Panic rushed up through me again, reminding me that I was still in the persistent embrace of medication withdrawal.
But I knew I'd seen Jenna. I wasn't giving up that easily.
Investigating the basement, I tossed blankets and boxes, calling out her name quietly so that if Hugh came down he wouldn't hear me. But I still couldn't find a sign of her. The french doors were locked from the inside.
I retreated to my room. The clock radio started blaring Nickleback, making me jump. I belly-flopped on the bed and yanked the power cord out of the socket. It was time to get ready for school, and staying here wasn't helping me.
Rushing into fresh clothes, my body apparently seemed to realize I'd barely slept and attempted to force a shut down. It felt like weights were tied to my limbs, but I forced myself to keep moving.
Upstairs in the bathroom, I splashed bitingly cold water on my face. Smudging concealer over the dark shadows cradling my eyes, I hoped I didn't look too much like a zombie. It was only a few hours. And people didn't inspect me very carefully anymore.
The Toyota's bleating horn honked outside. Theo was right on time. She always was, considering we lived next to each other. I muttered a curse under my breath, yanked my backpack off of where it hung on one of the dining room chairs, and ran outside.
The windows were rolled down to the already humid air. Fast-moving, heavy clouds promised rain above, but probably not soon enough for relief. The fog had burned away, but everything had the early morning softness of slumber.
As I slid into the passenger seat, I heard Theo humming along with an indie song on the radio. She was chewing a big wad of neon green gum, smacking her lips together.
"We're almost free!" she sang out, a toothy smile lighting up her face. She'd twisted her hair up in a barrette, tendrils framing her cheeks. When I didn't return the smile, her good mood crashed.
"What's wrong?" she asked, her body tensed on alert.
"I just didn't sleep well," I said quickly. I didn't want to give her any reason to freak out. "I had a bunch of nightmares. I've been worrying too much again."
She relaxed, the seat belt going slack across her chest. "Oh. Well, after school we can go out to eat and trash talk all of the people we won't see until next year. My treat. And no is not an option."
Putting the car into gear, we set off for school. I glanced once back at my house, wondering what would be awaiting me when I got back.
Sitting still was torture, and at the same time I had to struggle to stay awake. But I made it somehow; all the wiggling kept me alert enough.
Homeroom had been shuffled to the end of the shortened day, so we could clean out our lockers. McPherson came over the intercom. After congratulating us on our great school year, mostly the sports teams in the Big 9 championships, he paused.
"And on a personal note, that is of great significance to me," he began, drawing out each word for effect like a politician giving a victory speech, "I have been invited to become a member of the Thornhill Society. It goes without saying that this is a tremendous honor, and I am committed to helping improve Hell."
I realized my jaw had snapped open. No one else in homeroom was paying the slightest bit of attention. I couldn't think of a reason why a committee of the wealthiest members in Hell would want with McPherson. Maybe all of his relentless butt-kissing to Lainey and Henry's dads had finally paid off, but it seemed awfully farfetched.
Forcing the information out of my mind, I reasoned in five seconds when the bell rang, McPherson's oddball ways would no longer be my concern.
Mr. Landow, the homeroom teacher, sent us out into the hall to empty our lockers. A waste of time, since we'd be using the same ones next year. Everyone around me started dropping the remains of the dead year into huge gray trashcans.
In the back of my locker, I found crumpled up papers and notebooks from earlier in the year. I'd scribbled "Henry and Ariel" and different blends of our names to make a couple moniker. I threw it all away in disgust. Maybe my parents were right to treat me like a baby. Eh, maybe not.
The normal jubilation that accompanied the end of the school year erupted all around me as the closing bell rang. The sound was blown down the hall by a blast of air conditioning. Kids laughing and celebrating, eager to get outside after the pretense of school. I just wanted to get back and figure out where Jenna was, and why she had decided to come back now.
As I navigated towards the exit doors, people pushed me around, one big mass with the desire to move. Everything felt too loud and intense, and the burning on my scalp stung. I dodged to get out of the way of a basketball jock shooting ropes of Silly String at some cheerleaders.
I didn't have enough time to see Henry, let alone get out of his way. He was right there, his corpse eyes fixed ahead. The flow of traffic pressed our bodies together.
A flash of light shot through me. My vision went white, and I could feel the same energy infusing my veins into lightning bolts. My skin was on fire, but pleasure snaked through my stomach and down my legs. Both were equally powerful sensations, scrambling my senses and merging into one feeling.
The floor receded, but I didn't fall. A yanking, tugging feeling replaced the pleasure. My body was trying to turn itself inside out, flesh stretching, muscle tearing.
Invisible fists pummeled my shoulders, like someone tenderizing meat. I tried to duck or move out of the way, but the attacker wouldn't stop hitting. A scream started, a guttural roar, like a lion let loose from its cage. All I knew was pain, and pain was all I deserved.
Then I was back at Hawthorne, the vision a memory.
It took my mind a second to fully grasp the fact that I was down on my knees. The only thing holding me up was Henry, his arms surrounding and supporting my torso. Other students were trampling past us, barely noticing we were in their way.
"Ariel, are you okay?" he asked, the concern in his voice jarring. I looked into his terribly familiar face, feeling a confusing mix of hatred, sadness and hope. Tears rushed up to my eyes, and I shoved him away. He stumbled backwards.
As disoriented as I still felt, I didn't want him touching me. I tripped over my feet and almost went down again. His hands shot out to catch me but I twisted away, bumping into a girl with an oversized backpack who called me a bitch.
When I'd righted myself, I looked at him. His arms were still outstretched, like he wanted to embrace me. I spun and sprinted out the exit doors and into the parking lot, not looking back.
"Remind me again why we're at the playground?" I asked Theo wearily, leaning my head against the chain of the swing set I was resting on.
Theo had taken me for fast food, as she'd promised. Even though I still had no appetite, I'd forced down the greasy fare at Dante's, making my stomach feel bloated. Then we'd wound up back in the Toyota and driving up to the deserted community playground. Now we were sitting next to each other on the swing set.
"I come here to think sometimes," Theo said softly. "When I can't seem to find my thoughts anywhere else."
The humidity make my t-shirt stick to my back. Clouds kept rolling in and going back out again. The sun was still visible the whole time, in one half of the sky.
"Do you ever have a hard time living with your mom?" I asked, wanting reassurance that my parents weren't the only crazy ones. "Ever want to just pack your stuff and move in with your dad full time?" Ms. Vore seemed as normal and nice as could be, though.
Theo shrugged, pushing herself with her sneakers so she began to swing gently. "Not always. But sometimes there's just not enough space for the both of us, you know? And it has nothing to do with how big or small the house is."
I nodded. I knew.
"So just out of curiosity, what upset you so much earlier?" Theo asked.
I had torn out of the school, tears streaming down my cheeks, and flung myself into Theo's car without a word. It had taken ten minutes to catch my breath, and even then I didn't want to speak.
"Henry," was the first word out of my mouth. It was only partially true, but it was good enough.
She took her hand from the chain to push her glasses up her nose.
"That's not surprising," she said. "What did he do now?"
"It's hard to explain." I struggled to think of what to tell her. "I did something stupid yesterday. Well, I didn't think it was stupid at the time, but now I do."
My teeth worried my chapped bottom lip. I couldn't say anything about Jenna. Theo was a very accepting person, but even she might want to have me committed.
"Okay," Theo said after a minute of my silence. "If you stop talking there, I'll kick you. Start spilling."
"I stopped taking my medication."
"Why did you do that?" Theo asked.
"I couldn't stand the way it was making me feel anymore," I admitted. The swing squeaked as I swayed in the direction of the faint breeze. "It was zombie mode, constantly. I felt disconnected from everything. I still do, but I'm guessing that will eventually fade."
"You were a little fog brained for a while," Theo agreed. "But are you okay now? Is that safe?"
I shook my head, and looked up at the shapeless clouds. "I don't know. I think it's just withdrawal. I feel really anxious and everything is too intense, the sounds, the smells. I mean, I read about withdrawal, and you know me. I read one article and I think I'm an expert."
Theo chuckled under her breath, probably due to the truth of my statement. With the toe of her sneaker, she drew a heart shape in the sand.
"Now it's like someone pressed fast forward on my body," I concluded.
"Does your mom know?" Theo asked.
I looked at her sheepishly.
"Yeah, I didn't think so," Theo said. "That still doesn't explain what Henry did."
"He didn't really do anything." I felt stupid for even bringing him into the conversation. "I just bumped into him in school, like literally bumped into him, touching-his-body wise..."
"Touching his body?" Theo repeated, both eyebrows reaching her fire-red hairline. "Did you stumble into sex ed?"
I swung sideways so my swing knocked hers with a clunk. "We got pushed together by the sheep rushing out. And it brought back all my old feelings. The ones I didn't think I had anymore. I couldn't even talk to him."
"You shouldn't talk to him," Theo said emphatically. Her shoe tip erased the heart with one swift, graceful swoop. "You should set him on fire." She accompanied her words with a toothy grin.
I snickered, despite the fact that it seemed like an alien thing to do. We both sat together, listening to the traffic on the road, and watching a couple of birds flit around on the grass.
"I wish Henry had never moved here," Theo said.
AFTER THEO DROPPEDme off that afternoon, I stood outside the back door for several minutes, willing myself to go forward. I stomped playground sand from my shoes on the worn mat and went in.
I remembered Claire's list as soon as I opened the door, and groaned. Why did she have to torture me? Couldn't she give me one day without bossing me around?
I decided to ignore it for now. I had to; my eyelids were barely staying open, and my knees threatened to give out if I stood for much longer. Hugh must have been upstairs in his studio, since his keys were on the counter and there was fresh coffee in the pot.
Dragging myself and my heavy backpack towards the stairs, I went down. As I wandered back to my room, I tried to prepare myself for what I might see. I thrust the door open, expecting to see Jenna sitting on the bed, sticking her tongue out at me.
But the room was empty, smelling of dust and unused scented candles. Not seeing her was a strange, guilty relief, one I would have never expected. Frankly, I couldn't deal with Jenna now, either. My brain was in commercial mode — flitting from one image to another, with no purpose or reason.
Chucking my backpack under the desk, I collapsed on the bed. I passed out before I could think anymore.
The next conscious thought I was aware of was annoyance. Hugh was shaking my shoulder, trying to wake me up.
"I made spaghetti," he said. "All covered with cheese."
Somehow I'd ended up face down on my pillow, a little splotch of drool emanating from my mouth. I pushed my torso up a fraction, still mostly asleep.
"I made spaghetti," Hugh repeated. "For dinner. Are you going to get up any time in this century?"
"Maybe another decade," I said, dropping my head back to the moist pillow.
"It's already after 7," Hugh persisted. "Do you want me to just save a plate in the microwave?"
I muttered my agreement, and listened as he rumbled out of the room, flicking the lights off as he went.
I didn't stir from sleep until later, when I finally dragged myself to heed my rumbling stomach. The food from Dante's had finally settled, leaving me hungry.
Claire was home. Her briefcase sat open on the table, full of meticulously organized piles of documents with a rainbow of Post-Its. I hoped she didn't notice that I hadn't even taken a peek at her to-do list, but I knew that was a pipe dream. Her shoes clicked on the floor above, back and forth across her room.
I heated the spaghetti under a paper towel, my bleary eyes watching the glowing tray turn. My appetite grew with every rotation and when it was heated up I scarfed down the entire plate. For the first time in a while, I could actually taste the flavors.
Going back downstairs after I finished the dishes, I only glanced for Jenna. I knew she wouldn't be there. I'd hallucinated that morning, plain and simple. Sleep had put a great deal of distance between where I'd been that morning and where I was now.
Even though I'd slept for hours, I still felt tired. I remade the bed, putting on fresh pillowcases and depositing my week's worth of laundry across the hall. Then I settled in for the night, content to no longer be kept awake by my thoughts.
The dog chased me across the field. I'd never seen a canine so large, its spiky, coal-colored fur jutting off of its powerful frame. I could hear it growling as foam spewed from its maw, rows of strong white teeth chomping together. Its large paws broke through fallen branches and thumped against the hard ground like hoof beats.
It was going to catch me soon, and when it did...
I tried to run faster, but my useless legs were ready to drop. The dog, snarling and snuffing, came closer, and I prepared myself to be bitten.
Then the rules changed. I was the one chasing the dog, as it ran towards the shadows, away from me. I sensed fear from the animal, and the fright was a new feeling the beast didn't recognize. I wanted to rip out its throat with my teeth. Feel the black fur split and tear beneath my mouth. Feel its blood run down my face, fresh and thick and hot.
I had to catch the dog, before it was too late for all of us.
When I awoke, I felt refreshed, despite my dream. The weird withdrawal symptoms weren't gone, but they had mellowed significantly. I stretched and got out of bed; it was only 6:30 AM.
I was up before Hugh. I finally checked Claire's whiteboard. A bunch of mundane chores, nothing too serious. At least there was no lectury note about yesterday; apparently I had been given a pass, after all.
"Make breakfast" was scribbled next to an ironic smiley face doodle near the bottom. I'm a terrible cook; it is the stuff of legends. I burn everything I touch. And she knew it. But I'd already shirked a day's worth of chores, and I didn't want to give her a reason to be mad.
Retrieving a mixing bowl, I opened the fridge and pulled out a carton of eggs, cheese and milk. Cracking the eggs on the rim of the bowl, they sloshed inside, looking cheerful.
Carefully arranged recipes in cookbooks are as incomprehensible as Latin to me, but it didn't matter. Keeping my hands busy prevented my thoughts from going in the wrong direction, and there were so many wrong directions to go in.
I started humming a tuneless noise, and contemplated turning on the TV, then decided against it. I switched the milk for butter in the fridge. The dial on the stove went up another notch, and I scooped butter into a frying pan, making it sizzle.
"Are you trying to burn your house down?" Jenna asked from behind me.
I gasped. The butter tub tumbled from my hand, spoon clattering across the tile and leaving a greasy smear.
"Good job, messy," Jenna said, amused, as she sauntered into the kitchen. Her flip-flops smacked against the tile.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, so low I didn't think she would hear me. I could barely hear myself over the blood rushing behind my eardrums.
A look of hurt momentarily crossed her face. "I walked upstairs," Jenna said curtly. "I got bored waiting for you to come back, and then I couldn't find you. So here I am."
"You couldn't find me?" I repeated quizzically. I smudged the floor with paper towels. "I looked all over the place for you yesterday."
"Whatever," Jenna said, crossing her arms, but she seemed to relax. Now that I felt more natural, that I wasn't going through withdrawal as much anymore, it didn't seem as insane that she was there. But I still couldn't allow myself to get taken in by the unreality.
"You know you can't be trusted by an oven," Jenna said, more lightly. "You are standing too close. Step away."
"I'm making breakfast for Hugh," I said defensively. I could feel the thudding of my heart below my shirt. "Claire told me to. You said you walked upstairs. How?"
Jenna looked at me like I was an idiot. "Um, with these legs that I have." She slapped her tanned thighs beneath her shorts.
"That's not what I meant. Were you always such a snob?" I tossed the butter back in the fridge and swirled the frying pan. "Because I don't remember that part. Geez."
"I've always been me, if that's what you mean. Breaker of hearts, teller of truths."
I poured the egg mixture in the hot frying pan, trying to stay on task. I spilled some on the stovetop because my hands were trembling so badly. Making more chores for myself.
Jenna laughed again, a too high, clear sound, like jingling bells. It was an ethereal sound, that laugh. Like she was singing at the same time. And it was new; she hadn't laughed like that when she was alive. Her laughter had been deep and throaty, and I'd always made fun of it as being her truck driver guffaw.
"Will you quit laughing at me?"
"That's more like it," she said. "I'm glad you stopped the whole "you're dead" joke. Because that's about the unfunniest thing I've ever heard."
I sighed. How did somebody argue with a ghost?
"I wasn't joking," I said, looking at her again. With the shafts of light coming in through the windows, there was a glow to her that I hadn't detected in the dim basement. A luminosity that was definitely otherworldly. Her tan skin shimmered. I still didn't dare get closer than a yard apart.
"Your eggs are burning," she said with a smirk.
The pan was indeed smoking. Cursing under my breath, I grabbed the panhandle and shook it. The eggs were rubbery on top and blackened on the bottom, emitting thick, acrid smoke.
I transferred it to the sink and threw on the faucet. Steam and smoke hissed out like snakes.
"Something smells...like it was once food," Hugh declared, as he stepped into the kitchen.
I looked around wildly, but Jenna had disappeared again.
"Claire suggested I make breakfast," I said meekly. "There is a smiley face to prove it."
Yawning, Hugh rubbed his messy hair, the ratty blue robe he refused to throw away hanging lopsided from his shoulders. He took the pan out of my hands and began scrubbing it with a steel wool pad, grinning sympathetically at me.
"What?" I asked, irritated, my hands finding my hips. I wondered where Jenna had gone now. Maybe she's hiding in the cupboards, my always helpful brain suggested.
"Nothing! I just think its sweet."
"It's sweet that I'm incapable of making food without causing a catastrophe?" I asked grumpily.
"Yeah," he said, nodding. "And the fact that you tried anyway."
He set the freshly scrubbed pan on the other stove burner, and began pulling out ingredients from the fridge.
I gave him space to fix my disaster, peering around the cupboards for some sign of Jenna. I didn't want to lose her again, whether she was a ghost or a figment of my imagination, she was something, and something was better than nothing.
That's when I noticed the black rocks on the lawn outside. Walking over the the sliding glass door, I looked closer. They weren't rocks; they were birds, dozens of them, scattered on the ground. All of them had huge, ruffled black wings.
The birds jostled each other, sending up a flurry of midnight-black feathers, poking their beaks into the ground. I became aware that Hugh was standing beside me, as captivated as I was with the scene outside.
"Have you ever seen so many birds together like that?" I asked.
He shook his head. "No, not that many. I think it ended up raining last night. Maybe they're looking for worms."
A loud, twittering chorus came through the screen above the sink. Hugh continued to repair my breakfast mess, but I couldn't stop looking at the birds. With all that black, they appeared to be dressed for a funeral.
After a breakfast of french toast that was much better than anything I could have thrown together, I completed all of the chores on Claire's list. I was in no hurry to rush back downstairs. If Jenna was gone, it would depress me. If she was still there...well, I'd deal with it then.
But finally there was nothing else to occupy my time. Taking a deep breath, I went into the basement. I didn't see her until I walked towards my room. She was standing in the doorway.
"So you are still here," I said, not glancing at her.
"You sound so excited about that," Jenna said sarcastically. "I'm the one who should be pissed. You left me outside to rot all night. And then, I come home to make amends, and you ignore me."
A twinge of guilt rippled through me as I sat on the desk chair and swiveled so that I was facing away from her.
"I get that you're mad. But what do I have to do, bake you cookies?" Jenna asked in a slightly softer tone.
"I'm not mad," I said firmly, squeezing my eyes shut. "I'm just waiting for you to fade away again."
I was talking more to myself than her, but I figured that she was probably a projection of my thoughts anyway.
"It took so long after you...after you didn't come back," I continued. "I thought that what I was seeing was real. It wasn't. I only just started being able to function again. You were always the one with all the answers. Without you, I couldn't find any."
"Say no more," Jenna said. I swiveled around in the chair and stared at her in surprise. She'd threw her hands up dramatically. "I'll leave you alone, since you've given up on me."
She swung out into the hall and stomped away.
"Wait!" I said, but not putting a lot of volume behind it. I peered out and saw her walk into the main basement, plopping down in an overstuffed arm chair. Her face was cloaked in shadow.
I could have gone out to her. But I didn't know how. I clicked the door shut, and sat on the bed.
Despite turning the facts over, I couldn't figure out why Jenna was back. After all the times I hoped and prayed that she'd show herself, why now? I couldn't deal with her just popping up like that, not when I'd finally started to get some normalcy back in my life.
I never would have guessed I would react this way. When I imagined her coming back, and it was often, we always threw our arms around each other in slow motion, and went right back to our normal lives. This reaction was completely new.
I had to talk to someone. Someone real.
Theo was, as always, the last contact on my phone. I hit send, my hands still shaking, and held it up to my ear. Theo normally picked up after the first ring, but this time it took four.
"Hello?" Her voice croaked out of the speaker.
"Theo?" I almost wondered if I'd called the wrong person.
"Hey, Ariel," she said, sounding as though multiple frogs were lodged between her vocal cords. "What are you up to?"
"Nothing." Just chillin' with a dead person. "I was wondering if you wanted to hang out today. Maybe we could check out the arcade or something."
"That sounds fun," Theo said, but I knew she was humoring me.
"You're going to say no, aren't you?"
"I'm sorry," she said. "I was up all night last night, working on the mural. And then it just looked wrong, and I had to scrap the entire thing. So now I have to start over from scratch, my fingers are raw, and exhausted doesn't begin to cover it."
"Say no more," I said, trying to keep the disappointment out of my voice. "Definitely go back to sleep. That's how I felt yesterday, and a little rest made it better." Or worse. "Just let me know if you need anything."
"I will. I'm sorry," Theo repeated. "How are you doing today? Feeling better?"
"Yeah, things are fine," I lied. "Just like you said, much better now that we're out of school. I'll talk to you later."
I watched Theo's name fade and the screen go black. I couldn't stay in the house. Being cooped up was making it hard to tell reality from fantasy.
Dumping the contents of my backpack on the floor, I sat cross-legged and dug through the pile. I dragged the trash can next to me. Stacking the textbooks to be donated later to the book drive, I threw away what was mostly crumpled papers and broken pencils.
I'd been given a suggested summer reading list for AP English next year. I found it tucked in my English binder pocket. I hadn't been to the town library since it was renovated last year, and it was something to do.
I headed out and towards the stairs, careful not to glance at the armchair where Jenna had sat down.
"I'll be back," I whispered as I ascended the stairs.
I thought I heard a snort from behind me, but it could have been my imagination.
"I'M BORED," Itold Hugh, trying to sound like a regular teenager so he wouldn't hear the frazzled edge to my voice. "Can I borrow your car and drive into town?"
"Nice try," he said, without looking up from the portfolio spread on his art table. "You have a few months yet before I trust you with my wheels."
"What was the point of taking driver's training if I can't drive?" I asked.
"To drive you mad. Get it? That's what we parents like to do."
"Well, then, can you take me?" I asked in exasperation. "I just want to go to the library."
"Oh. In that case, sure," he said. Although I wondered if it freaked him out a little that his weird daughter was still interested in books the day after school just got out.
Traffic was heavy in town, with people going shopping and generally out enjoying the summer day. I noticed that the blackbirds hadn't been contained to our lawn; they seemed to be all over, choking the grass and perching on telephone poles and traffic signs.
The exterior of the library didn't look too much different, but it extended back farther, and I could see several new glass-enclosed walkways that stretched from the original part to the new wing. It remained a large structure, with blanched brick walls and copious windows. People from many of the neighboring towns came there to get books, and the library was always hosting activities.
"Just let me know when you want a ride," Hugh said. I nodded and shut the door, sighing internally that I always had to check in with him. I was a teenager; it's not like some kidnapper was going to snatch me up in broad daylight.
Stone lions stood guard at the end of the library path. Blue and silver pinwheels lined the grass, spinning gently in the breeze. I walked the winding path, beneath shady trees, and up the stairs into the library.
Inside, it smelled like new paint and old books. I passed through new metal detectors. The scratched floors had been replaced by sprawling green carpet that reminded me of the living room wallpaper back home.
The woman at the checkout desk had her back to me. She was clearing out the return box, thick brown curls pulled back in a wooden barrette. She scanned the books in her arms and set them on a rolling cart. I cleared my throat and she turned.
"Nurse Callie?" I asked with surprise. She was our school's nurse, not someone I would have expected to work there.
"Ariel, hi! How are you?" she asked brightly. "And it's just Callie here, by the way. Enjoying your summer so far?"
"It's only been one day," I smiled wryly. "But it's okay thus far, I guess. I'm not a big outdoors person, so I don't notice much of a difference. I didn't know you worked here."
"Just during the summer," she clarified. "When school's out, I split my time between here and the urgent care clinic. I try to keep busy as much as possible, it's a terrible habit. Be lazy as long as you can. What can I help you with?"
I explained that I needed a new library card, that I was killing time getting some books. She had me quickly hooked up with a new one, in gold and purple, matching Hawthorne's school colors.
"Welcome back," she said, smiling. "If you'll excuse me."
To get to the main part of the library, I walked through one of the glass corridors. It reminded me of Snow White's coffin.
In between the stacks, buttery sunshine filtered lazily through long windows. The library even provided little grocery baskets to take the load off your arms, but I thought I'd look a bit too dorky. Maybe in another twenty years.
I found the top two books on my list, My Antonia and House of the Seven Gables with the book jacket taped together. It felt good just to wander through the shelves, looking at all the worn titles and imagining who had read them before. Reaching the end of the fiction section, I came out to the back wall.
It had been turned into the fantasy category, complete with a painted mural of a red-winged dragon above the shelves. The spines of the books formed a diverse crayon box of colors, with swirling fonts and the tails of mythical beasts.
Of course, something else to remind me of Henry. I had hoped I'd left any reminders behind at Hawthorne. Fantasy novels were Henry's favorite. I'd often still seen him reading them at school, hiding them open on his lap beneath his desk.
Back when Henry was my math tutor, during one of our early session in the den, he pestered me playfully to read what he liked. I thought the whole dragon and wizard thing was a little out there, and I liked to tease him about it.
"If you just gave them a try, I know you'd like them," he'd said, ever-confident as always. It was part of why I loved being around him, because I fed off of his energy.
His feet were planted on the bottom rung of the coffee table, and he was reclining back with his head on the cushions. I could still see his expression in my recollection, his dark brown hair framing his eyes.
"That's your world, not mind," I said gently.
"It's not that different," he said. "And what would be so wrong about spending some time in my world?"
He accompanied his words with a wry grin, tiny dimples appearing between his smile lines. I'd have given anything for him to kiss me then. I pushed the thought out of my head, just like all the instant, embarrassing thoughts that would pop up when I was in his presence.
"Where do you get your books? Do you just buy out the store?"
"Library, mostly," he said, shrugging. "Here, let me write a good one down for you."
He took one of the note cards we were using for Geometry terms, and scribbled an author name and title in his slanted handwriting. When he handed it to me, our fingers brushed together, lingering for just a moment. Both of us felt the stir of energy that passed between us.
"Get this one. Assassin's Apprentice. You'll like it, I swear." Tossing the pencil on the table, in almost rolled back off. He caught it easily.
"As long as you swear," I said, my breath catching.
Back in the present, I was suddenly very ready to leave. I didn't need to be thinking about him, yet he was still stubbornly stuck in my thoughts, like he'd infected my brain tissue.
Hands covered my eyes, making me gasp sharply as everything went dark.
"Guess who," a voice whispered in my ear. His voice. Henry.
His cologne swam into my nostrils, and I breathed him in. He was the only person I knew who smelled that amazing. I realized as I was feeling that way that I shouldn't be. Not about him. Not anymore.
Wrenching away from him, I backed into the fantasy bookshelf. He didn't try to hold me or protest. It was a small space; there wasn't a lot of room to put between us. He was wearing a button down shirt, the top two buttons undone, his hair disheveled.
He dropped his hands to his sides, as though they were useless. My heart rattled crazily in my ribcage, and with my fast breathing, I kept getting the scent of him.
"You were supposed to guess," he said.
"I knew it was you," I said, my voice shaky. "I always know when it's you."
We stared at each other across the cramped area. His eyes were still lifeless, dull like dirty water. I wanted to punch him. I wanted to shake him and ask him what the hell he had been thinking messing with me. I wanted him to be the person he was when I first met him.
"What are you doing here?" It came out like an accusation.
"I come here all the time," he said, defensively. "I could ask you the same thing. I've never seen you at the library."
"Don't worry, I don't think I'll be coming back," I said, biting my lip.
Trying to get past him, he blocked my way. His hand brushed my upper arm and I yanked away from him. His touch was like slow-spreading poison.
"What happened back in school?" he asked, and his brown irises suddenly darkened, an effect I remember from way back.
"I don't owe you any answers," I said.
I maneuvered around him, and walked quickly out of the stacks. Tossing my English books on one of the unoccupied study tables, I marched past the checkout desk. Nurse Callie called out from behind me, but I ignored her. I didn't want to have to explain.
I could still feel the touch of his hands on my face, an invisible pressure.
Rushing down the steps into the stifling hot day, I pulled my hair up into a ponytail. The pinwheels on the lawn had picked up speed and were turning noisily.
"Why are you in such a hurry, chica?" Jenna asked. Out of nowhere, she was strolling beside me now.
I laughed, a weird sensation that came out through my nose.
"Why are you everywhere?" I asked.
"Why do you answer every question I have with a question?" Jenna asked, equally as huffily.
"I just thought you'd be bound to my house or however it's supposed to work. I'm going to Erasmus."
"Looking at pictures with your pops. Rad." Jenna rolled her eyes. "It's a beautiful day. School just got out. We should go skating or something."
She thought it was the beginning of last summer, since she had disappeared only a few weeks after Freshman year ended. But I kept silent as I realized it.
The sun lit up the fresh-cut grass. Tons of people were still taking advantage of the weather, riding bikes, jogging, power walking. I felt self-conscious. What if I was only talking to myself? I tried to be discreet with my communication.
"So why did you decide to follow me?" I asked Jenna out of the side of my lips.
"What's wrong with your mouth?" No detail got past the girl. Okay, except for one huge detail. "Did you have an aneurysm?"
"Well, I took a nap, then I realized I was bored enough to not care what you thought." She stretched her lithe arms above her head. "I've been really tired lately. I swear I'm turning into a grandma."
I knew Hugh wouldn't be happy when he saw me by myself. True to my assumption, when I walked into the open door of the gallery, Hugh scowled at me from his position at the front desk.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. He had been talking on his phone, but he flipped it shut. Gwen, his assistant, breezed out of the stock room with cardboard shipping tubes in her arms. "I thought you were getting books. Yet I see no books." He looked suspiciously towards my empty arms.
"Everything I wanted was gone."
"Did they clean out all the romance novels, too?"
"You should have given me a call."
"I'm almost sixteen years old. Give me a break. You know most kids my age are out all the time by themselves. Why am I such a delicate flower?"
"It's not about that," Hugh said gently. He started popping the tops off of the cardboard tubes, and sliding what looked like rolled up sketches inside. "Just because other parents would happily let their children tear down their houses, doesn't mean Claire and I have to be slackers."
"That sounds like you care a lot, Mr. Donovan," Jenna said politely.
This was my test. If either of them saw Jenna standing next to me, she was real. But neither of them acknowledged her speaking or even glanced in her direction. Gwen just smiled sympathetically at me from my father's pronouncement. My heart sank. Jenna seemed confused that Hugh didn't respond, then shrugged.
"The library is five minutes away, Hugh. Nothing was going to happen to me," I glared back at him, both disappointed that he couldn't see Jenna and sick of being treated like a helpless child.
"That's just like you, Ariel," Gwen said, amused, as she set down her cargo. "Keeping your mind busy even when school's been let out for summer. You have a good kid."
Hugh's anger seemed to disperse. "I have a willful kid," he said.
Blueprints were laid out in front of him. I could make out the shape of the gallery, the room we were standing in. I also noticed all the noise in the background, the distant sounds of hammers banging and an electric drill whirring.
"What's with the ruckus?" I asked, sitting on a stool near the counter.
Hugh groaned, rubbing his hands on his eyes. "Those idiot Thornhill people bought out that old ballroom at the end of the block, and now they're renovating it."
"I have no idea. Just to waste more money, is my guess," Hugh said. "They got bored with blowing their noses on hundred dollar bills." He folded the blueprint up untidily like an old newspaper and tossed it on the counter.
"So we're doing a little redecorating of our own," Gwen said, stepping in. She gestured to utility ladders set up on either end of the room. "We have some workmen coming in to change the light fixtures. Give it a bit more depth here, more drama."
Just then, a truck rolled up in front of the building, breaks squeaking. Two burly men in white overalls exited the front seat.
"I just hope they don't start busting holes in the ceiling. You hold down the fort here," Hugh instructed me, rapping his knuckles on the blueprint. He looked tired, like his head hurt.
I watched Hugh and Claire walk outside and start talking to the men. After a minute, I strode into one of the gallery rooms. The lights had been taken down there as well, so it was shadowy, the oblong windows letting in just enough sunlight through the blinds.
The colors of all the paintings had deepened, giving everything an air of mystery. The wall at the end of the room had been left blank, for Theo's mural. I felt a stab in my chest from missing her, and I hoped she was actually resting.
Jenna was hovering by my side the whole time. I could sense her tension.
I sat on a bench in the middle of the room, staring at the painting in front of me, but not really seeing it. It was an abstract, anyway; so to my eyes, it could have been anything. Red and black and white splotches all over the canvas; "Traffic" was the title on the brass plate.
"When are you going to vanish for good?" I asked wearily.
"Believe me, if I could, I would. But for some reason, I can't not be around you," she said grumpily.
"Doesn't that strike you as unusual?"
"Whatever. Hugh didn't say hi to me," Jenna said, sulking down beside me. "He and Gwen totally ignored me. Did you tell them—"
"They didn't say hi because they can't see you," I cut her off. "Most people can't see ghosts."
"Again with that. Okay, fine." She hopped back off of the bench. "Prove that I'm dead. If I'm a ghost, you shouldn't be able to touch me, right?" Her voice was quavering. She held her arms wide in a crucifixion pose.
"I'm done trying to convince you. I can't run in circles anymore. I'm retiring from the pro circuit."
"Oh no," Jenna said, shifting over so she was standing directly in front of me and I had to look at her instead of the blotchy painting. "Prove it."
I sighed, not really knowing how to prove something like that. What, should I drag her to the cemetery? Point cryptically to the letters on her headstone and shout, "See? Are you happy now?" That seemed too morbid, and knowing Jenna, she would just accuse me of doctoring a fake grave.
Reaching out my hand, I aimed for her arm. I figured my fingers would pass through. Instead, a current zapped me, a fainter version of when I'd bumped into Henry. There was nothing completely solid, but I did touch something, like plunging my hand into gel.
Somehow, it was like pinching myself in a dream. She was real. She was real because I felt her; not her skin, not her flesh, but her spirit. It left me with my mouth wide open as I retracted my arm.
"Ow! Why did you pinch me?" Jenna shouted, recoiling. She rubbed her forearm and looked at me accusingly.
"I didn't pinch you," I said softly. We exchanged a glance. And then I realized what I hadn't before, because I hadn't been close enough.
Her eyes. Not the black, insect-like eyes she'd had in my visions. Even Alyssa and Susan had those unsettling insect eyes. But now her eyes were back to their normal, alive shade of pale blue.
"What was that?" she finally asked.
I shook my head. "I don't know. That's a new thing."
Jenna sat down next to me, careful to keep herself at the other end of the bench. A vibrantly painted rose bloomed on the bench between us, the paint just starting to crack like black veins.
We sat in silent company, her shoulders slumping forward. She looked shocked, staring at the floor. I looked at the painting again through a blur of tears as I began to weep, and all I could see were shades of red and black running together.
"It's going to be okay, right?" Jenna asked softly.
"Yeah." And for the first time in months, I felt like that was true.
THROUGHOUT THE WEEKSthat followed, it became deceptively normal to have Jenna around again. Everyone else in my life seemed to be busy with their own responsibilities — Hugh at the gallery as a busy selling season began, Claire with her work at the insurance company. Even Theo with her mural.
It was as though the last year had never happened. Jenna was back to her old self, more or less. We didn't talk about her being dead anymore. She hadn't believed that she was, after all, just that she was sick. I felt no reason to push the issue.
One day I was in my room, getting dressed. I noticed the calender was still set to March; I'd never bothered changing it, since the passage of time hadn't seemed to matter. I tore off all the months before June, and crumpled the pages into the trash.
Jenna and I spent all of our days together, gossiping about the politics at Hawthorne, talking about movies, and sharing memories. She didn't know Henry existed, which was a nice change. I almost mentioned him several times, but I thought it would be too much to explain.
I spent a lot of time downstairs or just by myself (at least, it looked that way to an outside observer) on the couch. It felt nice to be lazy, now that I didn't wallow in sadness.
Hugh took up painting again in the times that he was home. I tried to stand and watch him work a couple times. He had three canvases set up on easels in his studio. All dystopian paintings, all half-finished. Like he had ADD, he would bounce from easel to easel, paintbrush dripping.
Whenever I tried to watch, even if I was quiet, he would stop and grin painfully at me.
"I know you don't mean to, kiddo. But having someone stare at me breaks my concentration."
The only problem with being practically house-bound was that I realized I was beginning to lose my grip on reality. And I missed Theo; as much as I loved having Jenna around, there was a hole there that Theo usually filled. For the first time in my life, I realized how shallow Jenna could be, cracking on fat girls with muffin tops on TV, and endlessly discussing her nails.
In the last week of June, we were in the kitchen again, joking as I made microwave mini pizzas. Jenna never seemed to notice the fact that she was never hungry. I washed off my plate in the sink, and glanced out the window.
"Remember last year, when Ambrose wore his hat backwards for a month and kept chuckin' up deuces at the teachers?" Jenna said, snickering.
Actually, it had been two years ago, but it made me giggle. Our school bully had always thought he was such a badass. Odd that he had given me the most accurate advice I'd ever heard about love after Henry betrayed me.
I noticed movement from next door, and pulled the sun-faded curtains aside. Theo had come out of her house beyond the fence. I dropped my plate, and rushed outside.
"What are you doing?" Jenna asked, as I slid the door shut in answer.
I stepped up on the supports and jumped the fence, a little trick Theo and I had both learned a long time ago. Crossing the lawn, I greeted her.
"Hello, stranger, how are you?" I asked, but my question was answered just upon looking at her. Her face was haggard, brown roots showing at the base of her ruby hair. Her bright green eyes were bloodshot, her mouth turned down in an irritated scowl.
"Not so well," she said glumly. A couple of thick paintbrushes were clenched in her fist, their bristles chunky with paint. She wrestled with the garden hose, then turned it on and started spraying the paint out.
"Where have you been the last couple of weeks?" I asked. I'd never, ever seen Theo like this. She was usually bubbly and put together, and while she had a tendency to be shy with strangers, it didn't last long once you got her talking. "Have you been working on the mural this whole time?"
"Yeah. I'm really sorry about that, Ariel. I just can't get it right." Paint was smudged on both arms, a yellow swipe across her forehead and off into her hair.
I had so many things I wanted to tell her, and yet I didn't feel like I could say any of them. Like I had a box full of secrets that would disappear if I opened it.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" I offered, knowing probably not. My art skills were nonexistent, and I sensed that she was like Hugh — she couldn't work with people watching.
Theo shook her head, shutting off the hose and shaking the brushes vigorously to get out the colored drops of water. "I just want to get this over with. And I have to work alone. It's just the way I am."
"I figured as much."
"I promise we'll make up for lost time. After."
"Don't worry about that," I said. "Just do your thing. I'll be here when you get out of purgatory."
The corner of her mouth quirked for just a second. Then she was retreated back into her house, and the door slammed behind her. Clothes fluttered on the laundry line, sheets and blankets and towels. I wondered if Ms. Vore was teaching summer school. It was all so mundane that it threw me for a loop.
Jenna was standing in the dining room when I went back in, looking at me in confusion.
"What was that?" she quizzed me.
"Nothing you have to worry about," I assured her, echoing what I'd told Theo.
I heard Hugh coming down the stairs. He was on the phone, or talking to himself. For some reason I didn't even know, I hid myself behind the kitchen cupboards.
"Are you a spy now, too?" Jenna asked in amused annoyance.
"Shhh!" I said with my finger to my lips, even though he couldn't hear her. She was distracting.
"It's moving too fast," I heard Hugh say to the person on the phone. "Much faster than I expected. It's like he was planning it all long, before he got here."
A pause, while the other person was talking.
"That's what I think, too," Hugh said. I heard him come close to the kitchen, and I scrunched up against the cupboards. "It wouldn't have been hard to communicate online, text messaging. It opens everything up."
He got closer. I heard him rifling through the mail on the table.
"I can meet up after Claire gets home. I'll just tell her I need to pick up something at the store," Hugh said. It made my blood run chilly. He never lied to my mom.
He must have retrieved whatever he needed, because his footsteps became fainter as he went back upstairs. I peered around the cupboards, staring after him.
Jenna and I were laying on the basement floor, facing in opposite directions, staring at the ceiling. Beneath us lay the faded oriental rug that had come from my grandma Eleanor's living room. I ran my hand over the red and black beasts and swirling flowers, lined with gold.
It was Saturday. My parents were having a movie date night. I had opted out, not that they had asked me. Since I wasn't stirring the waters, I had mostly retreated into the background.
I was glad for the chill of the basement floor. It hadn't dropped from the nineties during the day, and even in the nighttime it hadn't dipped below seventy. "An unprecedented heat wave" the cheerful weatherman had called it. I called it a sweat fest.
Even though we were separated by a foot, I could feel a faint electric thrumming emanating from her. That didn't even seem strange anymore. It was amazing what you could get used to.
Another explosion set off the surround sound speakers and shook the floor.
"What the gods are they watching up there?" Jenna asked, pointing her fingers like a gun at the ceiling.
"Something with explosions instead of plot."
"That doesn't seem like either of your parents' style. Was Masterpiece Theater a repeat?" Her hands were resting on her stomach, sloping down from gravity.
It felt weird to shrug while laying down. "They're entering midlife crisis time. They keep insisting we try new things."
In all the time that we'd spent together, we'd avoided any deep topics. Jenna had never been a politics in the middle east person, anyway. But it hadn't stopped me from thinking about things, especially when I laid down to sleep at night.
Last year, I'd found out that Jenna had been hanging out with Lainey and her cronies behind my back. It jived with the fact that Jenna had begun to pull away from me in the months before her disappearance. She had started to go out partying, something we were never big on.
"Answer me this," I said.
I rested my own hands against my stomach, mimicking her posture. I was careful not to touch her in case one of those shocks happened again. I didn't know if it would happen for sure, but I didn't want to chance it.
"Did you hang out with Lainey and Madison and not tell me about it?"
The silence that followed told me she was caught. I was surprised at how jealous it still made me feel, the old wound instantly splitting fresh.
I sat up and looked at her unmistakably guilty face. Her necklace had fallen back into her hair. Her mouth opened and shut several times. Rinse and repeat.
"How did you know about that?" she asked quietly, caught in her own web.
"So it is true?" I asked. I had known it was, of course — Theo had been the one to tell me, and she was the most honest person I'd ever met. I just wanted to hear Jenna admit it.
"Yeah." She pulled a strand of hair through her teeth.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because you would have shunned me," Jenna said. Her eyes flicked to my face, searching my emotions. "Don't tell me you wouldn't, because it's completely true. I know you better than your own hand, Ariel Rose Donovan."
"Would you blame me?" I asked, still feeling the burn of jealousy, though it was fading. Film machine gun fire erupted above. "Why would you ever hang out with those vipers? We've hated them since first grade. Was it about being popular?"
"I never cared about that. I still don't. My mom...thought it would be a good idea," she said carefully. As if timed for us, another boom from the TV rumbled above.
"Since when do you do anything Rachel says?" I questioned. "You normally run in the opposite direction as a rule."
"Well, yeah, normally," Jenna admitted. "But it seemed so important to her."
"Why?" I had waited so long for any answers, and didn't think I'd ever get any. I had built up a reserve of questions.
"Mom was talking about joining that stupid Thornhill Society," Jenna said. "And she said it would help if I got in good with Lainey, because her dad is like one of their bigwigs. And she and dad had been fighting so much over money..."
That made no sense. It made me think of McPherson's timely induction. Thornhill members were supposed to be the wealthy people in town, not the regular schlubs like Jenna's parents.
"Why would they even consider your family?" I asked bluntly.
"Maybe they needed more butt-kissers."
I let the subject drop for now.
"When you and Lainey were together, did you guys talk about me?" I asked lamely. I shut my eyes. I wanted to know, but at the same time didn't.
"No, dork," Jenna said, chuckling warmly and sitting up on her elbows. "We mostly talked about the Winter collections in Vogue and shoes. I was trying to weasel a free tanning membership out of her. Nothing important."
But I didn't know if I could fully believe her. I never would have thought she could lie to me before. Now I didn't know.
As if reading my thoughts, Jenna said, "You know I wouldn't lie to you about anything important, right? It was just a little white lie, I knew it wouldn't hurt anything." Never mind that it had hurt our friendship.
"I just have a lot of questions. Your mom said something about emails, too, ones she wouldn't let me see. Ones that suggested that you ran away, that you'd been planning it."
This revelation made her shoot up on her feet. I looked up at her in disbelief. "She was snooping around in my emails? What the hell?"
"That's what she said."
"Even if she was, there was nothing there. I never even gave Madison or Lainey my email, they just texted me a few times. I wasn't going to run away, I mean where would I go on my allowance?"
I nodded, trying to believe her.
Suddenly a big boom sounded from upstairs, much louder than anything before.
"That wasn't from the movie," I said, frowning. We both ran upstairs.
Hugh and Claire were standing by the sliding glass door. At least, they were standing where the door had been. Broken glass had shattered all over the floor. I moved over near them to get a closer look. Behind us, their movie was still blaring, forgotten.
A huge crow had flown into the door, its body a twisted mess of black, bloody feathers. Blood oozed in between the glass shards. Some of the feathers were still floating down in the horribly still air.
Later on, when Hugh had finished sweeping the glass into a dustpan, Claire and I were sitting at the kitchen table over coffee. Claire's white knuckles clutched her mug, the undiluted coffee shaking inside.
I normally didn't drink coffee, not liking the bitter taste. Especially ever since the gallon I had downed after Warwick was arrested. But I took a swig of the liquid from my own cup. It warmed my insides on the way down.
"I don't know how that could have happened," Claire murmured. Hugh was busy tacking up a plastic sheet in the empty hole where the door had been.
"It just means the window was really clean," I said, trying for a joke. It sounded inappropriate. I wanted to comfort her, but when she got like this, it mostly just freaked me out. I didn't know how to react when the roles were reversed and I was the one taking care of her.
Jenna wouldn't stop bugging me about the emails. A repairman came in the next day to measure the door and decide the best way to fix it. Claire made herself busy in the exercise room Hugh and I had set up for her a long time ago, that she'd rarely used up until now.
"I'm telling you, check my inbox," Jenna persisted. I was still trying to pretend I was talking to no one as we sat on the couch together, watching the installer and his yellow tape measure.
Claire's office was empty. I went in, feeling like I was being sneaky even though I was allowed to use the computer during the summer without asking.
The room was dark, from a lack of windows, the only light the blue indicators on the monitor and computer tower. I swung the mouse so that the monitor blinked to life and sat down, Jenna crouching beside me.
"Of course she would invade my privacy," Jenna was complaining as I navigated to the sign in page. "Not like she has anything better to do."
"I don't know, if my kid went missing, I'd probably cross all the lines, too," I mumbled. She ignored me.
"You know how she's always going through my room. She says she's putting away laundry, but it's like, socks don't go underneath the mattress, mom," Jenna ranted.
"Well, maybe if she didn't find things like cigarettes and random dude's phone numbers..." I said with a sideways grin, remembering.
"Those cigarettes lasted me four mouths!" Jenna said defensively. "You know they were just a prop."
I remembered every time Rachel caught her up to trouble, it had seemed like the end of the world. Jenna's privileges would get stripped for a few days, then her parents would reverse the decision like nothing had ever happened. Flip-flop parenting, Jenna called it.
"What's your password?" I asked, fingers poised over the ergonomic keyboard.
She looked at me sheepishly. "Uh, Twinklebug22." I had the feeling she should be blushing.
"One or two g's on that?"
"One. It was my dad's nickname —"
"I remember," I said, cutting her off.
We both sat and waited for the page to load, watching the screen impatiently.
"Wow...is that all spam or what?" Jenna asked. "When did I become so popular?"
There were 2000 unread messages in the inbox. It looked like many of them were alerts from her fanpage. I moved the scroll bar uselessly up and down, a little lost for a minute as to how to proceed.
Backtracking several dozen pages, to last June, I didn't find anything out of the ordinary. Then I checked the outbox, but the last message Jenna had sent was addressed to me, asking if I still had her yellow sweatshirt. The one she was now permanently stuck wearing, incidentally.
A hard lump formed in my throat. Jenna is right here, I reminded myself, and forced the lump away. Jenna clicked her necklace against her teeth, otherwise silent and watchful.
"If your mom did have your email, why didn't she give it to the police?" I asked aloud. "Most of these emails have never been read. If the police are investigating this thing as thoroughly as they say they are, this whole thing should have been dug through."
"Rachel's good at lying, too," Jenna said bitterly. "She probably just said that to get people off of her back." I looked at her questioningly. She was glaring at the screen, but there was also a kind of triumph on her face. Then she glanced at me, eyes searching. "Why the police? What did I do?"
"You went missing, remember?" I didn't even tried to mention the fact that she was dead. It would just start a losing argument.
"Is that why so many people have been emailing me?" she pressed, her voice soft.
I didn't want to tell her that after she'd disappeared, she'd become popular with people who barely knew her, people who felt compelled to express their massive grief. Even if they'd barely exchanged a word.
"You were gone for a while. It builds up."
"But see. There's nothing. I told you, I wasn't planning on running away. And if I had, I would have taken you with me."
That stirred a great deal of suppressed emotion in me. "You mean that? I thought you hated me that night you left..."
"Of course! I wouldn't leave you in Hell."
As a last ditch effort, I checked the trash, but that had been deleted long ago. Still, I believed her. There weren't any messages to or from Lainey or Madison, or even Warwick, although I knew the last one was a slim to none chance anyway.
She jumped to her feet, flip-flops snapping against her bare heels.
I checked the local news website idly, hoping to find some information on the birds. They hadn't let up, and only multiplied as the weeks past. Yet no one seemed to be talking about it, as if they didn't notice it. Or as if they thought if they didn't comment on it, they would go magically disappear.
Instead, I found a small article that the old Berhardt Asylum a few towns over was going to be gutted. They hadn't used the place for anything but an outpatient clinic for years, and now St Joseph's Hospital was taking the facility over.
Skimming the article, it reminded me of the medical papers of my grandmother I'd found last year.
Eleanor had been a patient at Bernhardt, though Claire had gone to great lengths for me not to know that, shredding her medical file. I'd only found a few slips of paper, but the fact that she felt the need to destroy it made me very suspicious. Maybe it was time to discover why she'd been so quick to destroy the evidence.
I HEARD CLAIREclomping up the basement steps, and I hurriedly put the computer to sleep and scrambled out of the room.
"Did you have a good workout?" I asked her. A towel was wrapped around her neck, her blonde hair slicked back in a bun, face red and moist. She patted her sweat-dampened forehead. Weighted wrist and ankle bands coordinated with her workout gear. Everything she did required an appropriate uniform.
"It was invigorating," Claire said. She looked towards the door installer, who was waiting patiently in the kitchen to speak with her. She went and talked to him, laying on the Claire charm, and wrote out a check. He gathered his things and left.
"When is he going to be able to fix the door?" I asked. It had been covered by thick, frosted plastic sheeting, held in place with masking tape.
"When he gets the glass order in," Claire said, sighing. She poured a glass of water from the faucet and sipped at it daintily. "Could take a week, maybe two. Of course. One more inconvenience."
As was common for us, we stood in awkward silence. We communicated more with clunky pauses than we did with words.
"What do you say we go get Chinese food?" Claire asked, tossing the towel on the counter and resting her hands on her bony hips. She stretched from side to side, tilting her torso at angles.
We got in the car and drove up into town, talking in little bursts of mundane details. Her garden was coming along well, and I talked about the novels I had been reading. It had been a while since I'd ridden with Claire in the car, and I had forgotten that every time she hit the breaks, her arm shot out in a protective gesture in front of me.
She placed an order at the China Gardens while I waited in the car. A lucky gold cat statue lifted its paw out front. After she brought the paper bags bulging with food, the car smelled mouthwatering, like egg rolls and lo mein noodles.
Claire happened to take the long route home. It took us by Jenna's old house, which I realized when the familiar houses started to roll by. There was a sign out front, and no cars in the driveway. The grass was long and unkempt.
"What's going on there?" I asked, craning my head.
Claire glanced briefly over. She knew exactly what I was talking about, I could tell. She drove past before speaking. "Her parents put the place up for sale a few months ago. They're eager to move."
"You knew, and you didn't tell me?"
"There wasn't much to tell."
"Well, I mean, it's pretty final."
"I know it's been hard for you, but you need to let people move on. Jenna's parents have had a hard time of it since...well, you know."
I was glad that Jenna had stayed at home. I didn't think she could take this news now.
My phone beeped in my lap, distracting me. Jerk read the contact. It took me a second to remember that's what I'd changed Henry's contact name to.
When did everything get so ruined? the text read. I dropped the phone like it was hot, feeling a blush spreading up my neck and across my face.
This didn't go unnoticed to Claire. She looked from me to the phone and back again. "Secret admirer?"
"Hardly," I said, my voice catching in my throat and giving me away. "Theo was just sharing some gossip."
I didn't know what to say to Henry, or the motives behind why he was suddenly trying to get in touch with me again. Maybe he'd texted the wrong person by mistake. I certainly didn't want to talk to him, not after the way he treated me. I had no reason to exchange words with someone so manipulative.
With a swift movement, the same as tossing my medication away, I deleted the text and shoved the phone in my pocket.
At home, after I'd stuffed myself with enough fried rice and sweet and sour chicken that I felt like I would explode, I went down into my room. I maneuvered around the bed to the side table, pulling open the drawer.
Rooting through old magazines and paperclips, I dug out what I was looking for. The notecard with Henry's handwriting, Assassin's Apprentice written out with effortless, lovely strokes. I'd kept it all this time. I ran my thumb over the words, then tore the card into pieces.
I'd kept out of the library since the day I'd seen Henry there, sending Hugh once to pick up the books I'd needed.
"What, do you think the place is haunted?" he had complained.
Not unless Henry counted.
But I was sick of being cooped up in the house. There was a string of days when it poured outside, and I couldn't even go in the backyard. There were only so many internet forum discussions about cat pictures and adjective-choked stories I could take.
Jenna had no interest in following me to the library, much like in real life. She declared it gloomy, and stayed at home.
Callie wasn't there; instead, a mean-looking old woman with a tattered patchwork knitting bag on her lap sat behind the counter. Knitting needles clicked and glinted — it looked like she was making a very large pink diaper. Her nametag read Stickler. She caught me looking at her, and glared at me like I'd done her a personal disservice. I hurried away.
I picked up more books off my summer reading list pretty quickly, but I had some time to kill. I wandered over to the nonfiction section, since I normally was a fiction girl. I hadn't made much of a dent in the cookbooks and craft how-tos.
The library was busy with afternoon drifters, a bunch of them occupying the study tables. There were a lot of college students with their laptops open. Some people had just wandered out of the rain and were milling around. The light that filtered in through the windows was blue, like there were aquariums built into the walls.
Perusing the titles, I turned the corner into the paranormal and metaphysical section. As I should have expected from our town's history, the section was packed. I wasn't really looking for anything in particular, but I ran my finger over the spines.
I hadn't been reading or watching as much spooky stuff, since my own experiences, which was a complete change for me. Horror and ghost stories had always been my bread and butter, my go-to source of entertainment no matter the source. It all seemed a little too real now.
On the top shelf, there was a short, oddly fat book tucked in between a few others. It was the color of deli mustard, and had no dust jacket. Other Worlds read the fading silver scrawl on the spine.
Reaching up on my tiptoes, I pulled the book down, yanking it out of its comfy crevice. There was no author name, and I flipped open the cover. None on the inside either, not even a publishing company listed. The binding had begun to fray.
I realized more time had passed then I thought, so I took my books to the counter. Stickler was still knitting her ghastly incontinence aid. She silently started checking my books out, but she stopped when she reached Other Worlds.
"You can't take this book out," she bleated in an unpleasant voice.
"This book can't leave the library," she reiterated impatiently, her eyes beady behind her reading glasses. She flipped the book so the spine was facing out and tapped a tiny oval sticker that read FOR REFERENCE ONLY.
"So there's no way I can check it out?" I asked.
She just glared at me like I was stupid.
"No, young lady."
There wasn't much I could do. She finished checking out my other books and handed them to me, putting Other Worlds behind the desk in case I might try to take it anyway. Yep, I'm just going to snatch it and run. You have me all figured out. Hoodlums and their baggy pants.
As I walked out, someone was coming in. It only took one glance to see it was Henry, a hideous but well-tailored plaid raincoat draped on his shoulders. My heart did its usual leap into my throat move, but I steered past him.
"Ariel," he said.
"I'm just leaving," I said under my breath, keeping my eyes averted.
"Did you get my text?" he asked.
"No. Changed my number. Goodbye, Henry." His name tasted odd in my mouth, metallic, harsh.
Theo's mural debuted right on schedule, despite her concerns. July had come, only amping up the heat. I hadn't seen Theo since the tense moment in her backyard, except for glimpses at night of her up in her room, busy concentrating on her easel like it held the secrets to life itself.
We were up at Erasmus, the newly installed lights giving the place a sense of depth and character. There were lots of people there, chatting with glasses of white wine as they waited for Theo's debut. Hugh had meant serious business when he advertised for the showing, ads in all the local papers.
Jenna wasn't there, and it was weird being back with flesh and blood people. I kept glancing around for her to pop up.
"Do I look nervous?" Theo asked, grabbing my forearm. Her voice was several octaves higher than usual, her green eyes ballooning like a cartoon mouse begging a cat not to kill it.
"A little," I admitted. "But this is your night. They're going to love you, Theo."
"I'm not so sure about that," she said. She pulled the gray turtleneck she was wearing away from her throat. Between that and pressed black slacks, she looked very mature. Even her glitter was a little subdued behind her tortoiseshell glasses.
"Well, I am," Alex assured her, putting his hands on her shoulders. Even he was dressed up, in khaki pants and a blue button-down shirt.
Theo tugged at her turtleneck again. She'd touched up her roots, and her hair was twirled together in a high bun with paintbrushes holding it in place. I was almost mad at her for doubting her own abilities. How could someone so talented not realize it?
Theo pushed her glasses up, clearing her throat.
"Mom insisted on the turtleneck. I hate turtlenecks. I look like Mr. Rogers and I feel like I'm being choked."
"You look great. Anticipation is always the hardest part," I said. "Just think, soon we'll be home, this will all be over, and we'll be gushing about what a great night this turned out to be."
A lopsided grin met her lips for my benefit. "So imagine it all over? Kind of nihilistic advice. I'll take it."
Alex had made himself busy balancing a stack of wheat crackers and expensive cheese squares on his palm. He'd already sampled most of the buffet table.
"Why don't you just plant your face down there and Hoover the tablecloth?" Theo asked, but there was fondness in her voice.
I realized how much I had missed her. Jenna was, well, Jenna, but being with Theo made me feel very at ease, and I'd missed her humor.
Alex straightened, cracker crumbs in his blonde stubble. "It all looks good. I haven't eaten since breakfast."
"You're fine. I'm starving, myself. But I have a nervous stomach," Theo said. She turned to the table crammed with buffet food that Hugh had commissioned. "I am so eating every single one of you when this is over. Except the fish eggs. I can do without those."
She slid a crystal bowl brimming with caviar to the back.
"What, no umbrellas in the drinks?" Alex said, pouring a cup of pop. "I thought this was a high class joint."
"Sorry it's not up to your culinary standards," I said.
Hugh made his way over to our trio, dressed up in a suit and looking more relaxed than he had in a while. Theo jumped a little when he tapped her shoulder. "Are you ready? Your audience awaits."
Theo gulped and nodded. Taking a swig of her Sprite as though it were spirits, she followed him into the next room. Alex put down his plate, full of half-nibbled hors d'ouevres, and he and I followed behind them.
The formerly empty space at the end wall had been replaced by a huge, blue crushed velvet rectangle, behind which Theo's work was hidden. She had insisted on the curtain for dramatic effect. Concealing her blood, tears and missed meals.
People I didn't recognize filled the room: hipster types with carefully manicured beards and condescending looks, to grandmother types that looked like they might break out the cookie baking.
The waves of her anxiety reached out across the room, like a hand.
"She hasn't eaten in days," Alex suddenly said, whispering to me. "She's so focused, like her whole world balances on this mural. I used to think she didn't care what other people thought, but this one thing...man, it's eating her up."
He seemed so genuinely concerned that I was taken aback.
"I knew that she was sequestering herself but I didn't realize she wasn't eating," I whispered back, watching Theo and Hugh continue towards the blue rectangle and feeling like a very bad friend. For the first time, I noticed how gaunt her cheeks were.
Ms. Vore was standing a few yards away, chatting with two other women who were bobbing their heads politely at her rapid speech. She waved at Alex and me, a blushing excitement on her cheeks.
"That's my daughter right there," she said, pointing at Theo, who either didn't see her or had perfected ignoring her. I had to ask her what her technique was for the latter.
"Yeah, she hasn't been sleeping well, either," Alex said, continuing our conversation. "She's putting all of this pressure on herself. Do you think she'll be all right?"
"As long as they don't hate it and throw carrot sticks." You never could tell in the art world, since everybody was a critic. I sent up a silent prayer on Theo's behalf.
"Can you talk to her maybe, after? She listens to you. Even if it goes badly, I want her to know that she's better than that."
"Do you even know what the mural's about or what it looked like?" I asked.
Alex shook his head vigorously. "She won't tell me. Won't show me a thing. Do you?"
Hugh cleared his throat, and everyone quieted down. Over thirty people had gathered in the oblong room, an impressive turnout. I realized wistfully that I didn't see anything on the walls that Hugh himself had painted, even though there used to be a few things. His Hellscapes at home had remained unfinished.
"Break...uh...your hands!" Alex stage-whispered across to Theo, giving her a thumbs up. It earned him some confused looks from those around us, but Theo smiled genuinely for the first time that night.
He was really growing on me. Maybe not warm cozy winters by the fire growing, but still...
"Hi, everyone, thank you for coming out tonight," Hugh said warmly. I wondered where this person, my dad, not the one who wore cargo shorts and made weird phone calls, had been for the last few weeks. "I've always believed in the importance of supporting young, local talent. Sometimes, someone comes along who is truly special."
Theo was quivering with stage fright. I crossed the fingers on both of my hands into pretzels, praying that Theo's mysterious masterpiece would be well-received as Hugh talked her up a little more.
"Without further ado," Hugh said with his charmer grin, then bowed out, leaving Theo by herself. Her nervous face reminded me of my last piano recital, when I flubbed half of the notes in the chorus from my eagerness.
A smattering of polite applause cut off to silence. Someone cleared their throat. In an uneven, breathy voice, Theo began to speak.
"I was influenced...by events that have happened to the people closest to me. I wanted to capture the mix of emotions. It's called I Don't Know What to Feel. Mostly 'cause I couldn't think of a better title."
A few people laughed politely. Theo looked and Hugh, who gave her a reassuring nod.
She stepped back and tugged at the blue cloth, which after some struggle, fell away to the floor. Everyone was silent. I think all three of us — Theo, Alex, and I — held our breath. I wondered if he'd have to run up and catch her.
The top half of the mural was in blue tones, some as deep as the bottom of the ocean, some as pale as a hot sky. There was a crowd of faces there, but all of them looked angry, like they were fighting each other. A sharp contrast to the peaceful shade.
The bottom half was one person, in the fetal position in the corner of a room. He looked like he was crying. But the colors on that half were angry red and orange, and it was done in slashing, harsh strokes.
"The composition is very solid," said one woman, adjusting her glasses. "It's an amazing contrast."
"You have a fantastic eye for colors. The red and orange are so vibrant," said a man with half his head shaved.
We all let out a breath of relief at the same time, as people started asking her questions. A wide smile spread from cheek to cheek on Theo's face. It was as if the whole room had sprung up with flowers.
"NOW WE REALLY are going to celebrate," Theo said later, after most of the onlookers had departed. Theo had even sold two of her older sketches, and everyone had been extremely positive about her work, asking her about her upcoming projects. "We're going to have an arcade party or something."
She was bouncing from foot to foot, doing a little dance. Just as she'd said, she had a plate piled with food. She seemed so bright and happy, I was relieved. Her intensity had begun to worry me.
"Whatever you want to do, I'm game," I said. "I've missed hanging out. I was starting to go stir crazy, talking to myself."
"We should have a girls only sleepover too," Theo suggested.
"What is with all this girls only crap?" Alex asked crankily.
"You can go to the arcade, too," Theo protested. "At the arcade, there are shoot 'em up games. Perhaps you've not heard." She shoved a hunk of cheddar in her mouth.
"I was thinking more along the lines of dinner at a nice restaurant," Alex said.
"Hey, if you want to pay for my eats, then I'm not about to stop you," Theo said, and they grinned at each other. She had cheese in between her front teeth.
"I'm proud of you, babe," Alex said softly. He pushed her glasses up for her and leaned down to kiss her, despite her literal cheesy grin. I turned away, the moment feeling too intimate for me to be a part of.
A woman in a flowery, Laura Ashley style dress came up to me. She clasped her hands together demurely, seeming a little hesitant.
"Excuse me," she said, "Are you Hugh's daughter?"
I nodded. "I'm Ariel."
She gestured at the half-full table of appetizers. "I'm a volunteer at the food bank, and I couldn't help but notice that you seem to have a lot of food left. I was wondering if your dad would consider donating the leftovers?"
"I don't think he'd have a problem with that, but let me check first," I said.
I sought out Hugh near the front. A boxy chandelier, made of lightning glass, made the front counter glitter. Gwen was standing behind the desk, shuffling through papers. She was wearing dangling purple earrings that matched her form-fitting dress.
"Hey, honey, what's up? Theo did really well tonight. Been hearing nothing but positive feedback."
"Thanks. There's a woman from the food bank asking if we can donate the leftovers. Where's Hugh?"
"I think he stepped outside for a few minutes," she said. "Something about a telephone call. His head's been all over the place, I swear."
The door was propped open with a topiary planter, the air conditioning turned off to let in the sweet night air. Lights twinkled outside, and the laughter and clinking glasses from a newly opened bar and grille across the street carried over. I didn't see Hugh, but as I listened, I could hear his voice.
He was definitely on the phone, by the talk and pause rhythm of his speech. I walked down the sidewalk and rounded the corner of the building. His back was to me, and he didn't realize he had company.
"That's what I told you," he said. "It's not what you think."
I walked closer to him, but he must have heard my footsteps or seen the long shadow I cast on the wall. He spun around and covered the speaker with his hand. "You need something, kiddo?"
He looked like he was trying to hide the phone, but failing clumsily. I explained about the food bank volunteer.
"Yeah, yeah sure. That's a great idea. I had no idea where we were going to store all of it." The tone of his voice didn't match the brightness of his words. His smile was tight, and he was waving me away, brushing me off.
"Thanks. I just wanted to make sure," I said. I hesitated, with him looking at me expectantly.
"I'll be back inside in a minute," he said. "It's humid out here, go back in."
I wanted to tell him I knew he was lying. But technically, I was lying too, about other things. I knew he'd just tell me I wouldn't be able to understand. That it was adult business, and I was too young, or some other crap that adults say to get you to stop talking.
Backing up, I went back around the corner to rejoin my friends. Hugh didn't get back on the phone until I was out of sight.
Theo and I were hanging out at my house the next day. Jenna was still keeping away. She had been there in the morning, acting like she normally did, with no sign anything was amiss. Then she just went awol after lunch. I wondered if Theo being around was somehow causing Jenna to stay back.
Hugh had excitedly told me early in the morning that one of the critics from last night had put a bid on Theo's mural. He'd called and told her with me standing in front of him. I'd heard her squealing over the phone while he covered his ear.
Now we were waiting until the buyer arrived, when Theo would be driving up to Erasmus to discuss the transaction. The minutes seemed to tick by like hours for her, and she couldn't sit still.
"I can't believe he was that impressed. All this seems like it's happening to somebody else," Theo said. "I keep waiting for a cameraman to pop up and tell me its all a prank."
She was rearranging Tetris magnets I'd gotten for Christmas on the refrigerator, making beeping noises as she dropped them. I felt like it was the right time to bring up Alex's concerns, even if it made me uncomfortable.
"So you're doing okay now, right?" I started gently.
She looked at me in surprise, dropping one of the magnets and bending down to retrieve it. She kicked it up with one of the sneakers she was wearing, the rubber toes covered in doodles.
"Sure, why wouldn't I be? I feel great!"
"Alex said something like you hadn't eaten or slept for a while. And I knew whenever I tried to get a hold of you, you were always busy."
She wouldn't meet my eyes. "I just got stressed out, that's all. You don't have to worry about me."
"Why does that feel like you're totally avoiding the issue?"
Theo sighed, slapping the magnet back on the fridge. "He's right. You're right. I wasn't taking care of myself. I don't really care much what other people think, present company excluded, of course. A lifetime of being bullied, and having to grow lead skin, did that for me. But this is one thing that I feel like I'm good at. And if I'm going to be good, I need to be really good."
"That makes sense. But Theo, you are really good."
"To you. But you're my best friend. You're naturally biased. I want to get into art school, I want to really make this my life. And to do that, I have to take it seriously. And I've never taken anything seriously."
"Taking something seriously doesn't mean killing yourself over it," I said, leaning against the wall. "Just next time, promise you'll let me talk you down off of the roof."
"Okay. I promise. It's really kind of weird to have people care about me. It's not bad weird, it's just...different."
"I get what you mean."
"How have you been doing? It seems like you're feeling better," Theo said.
"Well, I think the drug withdrawal is all over with. I haven't had nightmares in a while. I don't feel like I have a charred head anymore." I didn't say a word about Jenna.
Theo's phone rang as Hugh put in his awaited call. She jumped and then held a finger to her lips as she answered.
"Hi, Hugh. Are we a go?" she asked, listening intently. I watched as she spoke to him. When she shut off the phone, she grabbed her car keys from the counter, the fifty keychains hooked to it clinking together.
"Don't leave me in suspense!" I complained.
"The mystery buyer has landed at Erasmus," she reported. "We gotta get a move on."
All day we had referred to the buyer that way, because we couldn't recall which man it could have been. The one with the knitted cap on a hot night, maybe, or the one with an unironic handlebar mustache.
It turned out to be the mustachioed fellow, who was wearing a suit with little violet pinstripes and a matching purple tie. Beneath the suit was a t-shirt, the only part I could read being Save the. He spoke in a unusual voice, almost with an accent, that I figured was affected. He accentuated weird syllables, like "payunting" instead of painting.
Theo talked with him for a while, told him her plans for art school and the future. It made me kind of sad to hear her say she wanted to go to an out-of-state school, the Art Institute of Chicago. It wasn't that far away, two years, and we could be scattered all over the country.
Then he cut the check, signing his name with a flourish.
"I believe this is a fair price," he said. He handed it to Theo, whose face didn't betray any emotion. She tucked it in her pocket.
Shaking his hand, she nodded and said, "Thanks for believing in me."
Mustachio left with a kind of funny salute.
"I didn't want to interrupt, Theo,' Hugh said. "But hopefully you got a good deal."
I assumed at least a hundred dollars. Theo slyly slid the check out and unfolded it so we could read. Four thousand dollars & 0/100.
We both started jumping up and down like sugar-high kindergarteners.
A familiar car rolled past the front windows, casting a little rainbow of refracted light on the wall. It was Henry's father's Lexus.
All of the excitement I felt for Theo exploded through me in one burst, and I was left with curiosity. Like all my attention was directed at the car. I didn't know what they would be doing in this part of town, but then I remembered that Thornhill owned the old ballroom now.
I excused myself, as Theo and Hugh chatted about Theo's next moves, and wandered outside. I could feel the hot sidewalk through the soles of my shoes, the unrelenting sun in the azure blue sky blasting down.
The Lexus had parked at the end of the block, in front of the ballroom. The smell of fresh paint and pine planks carried over to me. Construction scaffolding had been set up around the entrance, and the roof had been tarped off.
As I neared the entrance, I heard hammers and drills resonating from inside. The ballroom had been popular at one time for dancing lessons and occasional bingo meets. It seemed like a lovely old place, but also an old-timer hangout.
The tinted windows were filthy, but I could still make out the people inside. I peered in through the grime. Henry stood next to his tall, intimidating father, who was deep in discussion with one of the construction workers.
Henry had apparently inherited everything but Phillip Rhode's height; even their posture was the same. Phillip was handsome, but in a more severe way than Henry, and he obviously knew he could use it to his advantage.
Turning his head suddenly, it was as though Henry could feel me spying. I felt caught, but didn't budge. He held up one pointer finger to his father and the man they were talking to, and excused himself outside. As he began walking towards me, I prepared myself for my usual run. But I was tired of the games, and the urge fled before I could.
He eyed me unsteadily as he walked out, his hands shoved into his pockets. He was wearing a suit, something I'd never seen him dressed in before, and looked weirdly formal. Complete with a shiny red tie that looked like a blood smear. A bruise was fading beneath his right eye.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi. I saw your dad's car," I said, gesturing meekly to the Lexus. "Did you walk into a doorknob?"
"Just wasn't paying attention," he said.
"Oh. I was just wondering what you two were doing in this part of town."
"Thornhill is renovating this place to be their central office," Henry explained with a shrug, unaware that I was already informed and just looking for an excuse. He looked uncomfortable, like he was sweating.
I'd never realized that Henry's dad was so involved with Thornhill, although it made perfect sense. He was one of the richest men in town, a successful criminal lawyer.
"You mean an evil lair?"
"Same difference," Henry said, the phantom of a grin passing his lips. After a pause, he said, "So you changed your phone number, huh?."
"No. It's the same. I just didn't know what to say." My own hands found my pockets, and I rocked up on the balls of my feet. "You kind of started talking to me out of the blue."
"I know. After the past few months, cutting off ties like that. I didn't know how else to try and get a hold of you."
"Why are you suddenly talking to me?" I blurted out bluntly. I couldn't take wondering anymore. "After all the tie-cutting and ignoring and oh, telling me to pretend you didn't exist, and to go back to my side of the trailer park."
He kicked a split chip of wood on the ground and it scuttled into the rain gutter. "I don't want you to hate me. You have every reason to, I know. But I don't want that to be the end of our story."
I tried resisting the emotions that were flooding me. I hated the fact that his words filled me with hope, like I could just throw myself into his arms. Being a girl sucked. "Well, unless my dreams came true and Lainey got hit by a bus, I think that was the end."
I was going to turn and walk away, but my body was immobilized by the fact that he laughed. He ran his hand through his carefully coiffed hair, looking almost shy and incredibly handsome, his features having matured in the months since I'd been close enough to pay attention.
"There's so much I want to tell you," he said with a sigh, looking up at the cloudless sky. His voice was low, almost mesmerizing. It had had that effect on me before, at our study sessions. "But I don't know how, or where to begin."
Phillip had noticed us talking. He was glaring at us — well, mostly me — from the other side of the tinted window. He called to Henry from inside Thornhill's lair in progress. Henry bobbed his head quickly in my direction and rushed back inside, as if he would get in trouble if he didn't run. I sighed, shutting my eyes briefly, and walked back towards Erasmus, back to my side of the block.
My phone vibrated just as I reached the gallery's doorway.
Can you meet up with me at the library next week? he'd written. After a moment of hesitation, I finally wrote yes.
I DIDN'T GETa chance to go to the library until the next Wednesday. Theo was glued to my hip after her debut at the gallery, and I didn't mind, as we made up for missed time. Jenna was still around too, coming in when I went to bed, cheerful as always.
It was strange to have them both in my life, yet unable to interact with each other. I couldn't even bring up their names with each other. Jenna wouldn't understand who Theo was, and Theo didn't know I saw ghosts.
I thought Henry would decline, or change his mind since I only gave him notice by texting him the night before. But he quickly agreed to meet up with me Wednesday afternoon. I had no idea what I was doing, and I tried not to think about it too much.
As soon as I went inside the library, I saw Nurse Callie talking to a well-dressed, handsome woman in front of the checkout desk. Her hair was the color of well-aged wine, wrapped in a bun so tight it looked painful. Her face appeared equally as tight, from fillers and the severity of her personality. If one were so inclined, they could have bounced a quarter off her forehead.
"Why was that paint color used on the back wall?" the woman asked. Her voice sounded so snobby and cartoonish, I couldn't imagine anyone really talked like that.
"I believe that's what the painters were instructed to use," Callie said cheerfully. Her good attitude only seemed to irritate the lady with the twisted undergarments further.
"Well, it's not taupe. I specifically saidtaupe. It's light beige. Far too pale. It's supposed to convey a three-dimensional sense to the space, you see what I mean?" The woman walked behind the counter, making a frame out of her arms. I had no idea what she was going on about, but I was riveted. Callie just continued to smile, although it appeared more and more forced, and nodded.
"Sure! Yeah, of course," Callie said.
"Well, make sure you call the painters to schedule a repair," the woman said. "It's your responsibility." She departed out the front door, her stiletto heels clicking loudly, probably to stomp on kittens in her free time.
"Who was that?" I asked Callie in a gossipy tone, depositing my returns in the drop slot.
Callie rolled her eyes and started laughing softly. "Cheryl Rhodes. The pickiest woman on earth. She's running her own beautifying subsection of Thornhill now, apparently. First our flowers were too "common", so we have to bring in Moccasin Orchids, which are going to die because the soil is completely wrong..."
She seemed to realize she was ranting, and smiled apologetically, bending to retrieve my books and checking them in with her hand scanner. "Sorry. She drives me bat crazy. But she and her husband have put so much of their own money into the library, we have to abide by every little nitpick she has. It doesn't help that they're both attorneys."
My mouth had gone dry. Cheryl Rhodes. Henry's mom. I'd never met her before, but I had heard enough to know she would dislike me. I'd had the strong suspicion that Phillip Rhodes had.
Callie leaned back so I could get a good look at the wall behind me. "Does that look like taupe or beige to you?" she asked, in a mimic of Cheryl's voice. I giggled.
"I can't tell. I must be colorblind," I said.
"You and me both, hon," Callie said, and went to the back.
I navigated to the paranormal section.Other Worldswas back in its hiding place on the top shelf. The library was busy as it always was during the week, but I found a comfy corner with a small table.
Outside, it was raining steadily, car tires sloshing in the streets and the echoing drops tapping on the roof. The lamp on my table made a little star of light on the wood. The aquarium look was in full effect again, and I could imagine colorful fish swimming just outside the glass, like the tank at Blind Devil.
I wondered if Henry would come, or ditch me. He'd been there even when I didn't want him. I tried very hard to concentrate on the book instead, at least to get my mind off of the boy.
The text was in some decorative font that looked like handwriting. It was full of cheesy, Aunt Corinne-approved words, like a unicorn care manual or a cult handbook. Any text withastralseveral times in one page made me suspicious.
The first few chapters just introduced the reader to the idea of life after death, as if they'd never heard of such a thing. Or more like what sounded like death after death. Either you passed on and were basically put to rest with no consciousness, or your "essence" lingered behind, if you were one of the unlucky ones.
At any moment, I assumed the book would start informing me about the importance of chakra cleansing. I settled on chapter three, titledLimbo, getting comfortable.
The world that is closest to our ring of consciousness is referred to in knowledgeable terms asLimbo. Limbo intersects our world from time to time, and those who have The Sight are able to see it. In Limbo's ring of existence, the Essence is caught in the state it was in before the human expired. The energy is unable to progress, or move forward, or change.
This was getting useful. I'd never read anything about ghosts that made much sense to my experience before, having never encountered moaning sheets or floating orbs. All of the traditional ghost information struck me as being false now, the product of fear or ignorance.
What ancient texts have referred to asPurgatoryis the ring of Limbo. It is not an unpleasant existence, but it is never-changing, a flimsy replica of the main world. A world of swirling fog and hazy sleep. In this state, it can be nightmarish for any spirit that has the urge to move on. It is a state of forced denial.
I thought about everything Jenna had told me. Was that where she resided now, Limbo?
"That must be the world's most interesting book," Henry said. I jumped, startled. I hadn’t even heard him approach, and now he was sitting across from me, watching me curiously. "What's it about?"
"Girly things," I said, shutting the cover and sliding it away, as if disavowing knowledge of the book. "Makeup application, PMS remedies."
He chuckled, looking at the mystical cover, the swirling silver letters. "Uh huh. Getting in touch with the moon goddess, huh?" He took a deep breath, his broad shoulders rising and falling. "So. You're here."
My heart beat erratically again. I couldn't believe it, either. "Apparently I am."
"And you're not going to run away?" he asked.
"I'm not promising anything. Especially not that I won't run," I warned. I was very guarded, and didn't want to sound too casual. The problem was, it was easy to slip into casual mode with him, to let my guard down, even with everything that had passed between us. It was like time had stopped. I would have never thought it would be that way.
I fidgeted in the chair, with no idea what to do with myself or my hands.
"So where's your girlfriend this afternoon?" I asked, looking out of the window beside me onto the slushy street. As cars passed through the muddle puddles, waves of muddy water spurted up onto their undercarriages.
"Let's not talk about that right now," Henry said.
"Okay. So what do you need to talk about with me so urgently?" I pried.
"I told you I don't know where to start. I still don't." He leaned back in his own chair, which creaked against his back as he put his hands behind his head and stretched. I tried to ignore the way the pose elongated his stomach beneath his polo shirt, and focus on the ridiculousness of him wearing a polo shirt instead.
"How about this...why did Thornhill buy up that old ballroom?"
"They've been buying up property all over the place. Part of it seems to be having free access to Hell. They donated a bunch of money to this library, for example, and now my mother" — his lips twisted upon saying that — "comes here all the time and harasses them about drapes and furniture."
"I just first-hand witnessed a display of said harassment," I muttered.
"Oh, you met mom?"
"Uh, no. I don't think she noticed me, the pee-on."
"Remember that orphanage we went to last year?" he asked. "I'm sure you do, since it was your idea. Anyway, they bought that up, and they're fixing that to be some kind of historical museum."
"They bought Dexter?" I asked incredulously. "Why?" It explained the SOLD sign I'd seen on my last visit.
Henry shrugged. "Like I said, a historical place. It's a pretty huge old building. And there are five acres of property; I guess it stretches back a lot farther than we saw, through the trees. It used to be a farm, or something. Back in the woods is the wreck of an old crop barn."
"Dexter put the orphans to work farming," I recited, remembering. "Warwick told us that." Saying his name gave me chills, and I shuddered. Henry's hand shot out to take mine across the table, but I pulled it back into my lap.
"How are you doing now?" Henry asked gently. "I'm sorry I never got a chance to give you my condolences about your friend. Life was such a mess after what we found in the basement."
"It looked pretty simple to me," I said, the tone of my voice hard and unforgiving. There was still a lot of hurt lurking just below the surface.
"Nothing about it was simple," Henry said, equally as stubborn. I could sense whatever he wanted to tell me, words lingering silently at the back of his throat. But I didn't want to hear them. I changed the subject.
"Do you remember seeing graffiti back when we went for our seance?" I asked.
He looked confused. "That's random."
"I know. But I'd really like to find out. And my memory is a little faulty."
"Truthfully, I don't remember much about that night."
"I remember it sayingHell is closer than you think. But..." I didn't want to tell him I'd been trespassing, especially now that I knew it was partly his dad's property. Not to mention it just sounded crazy. "I can't recall."
Henry looked thoughtful for a moment, still leaning back, watching a teacher and her pupil struggling through worksheets at the next table. I was getting frequent, achingly pleasant wafts of his cologne again, and tried to breathe out my mouth instead.
"I remember that, actually," he said. "Not from that night. But we went to the place a few months ago, when the real estate company was assessing the property. Dad dragged me along. I remember thinking well, yeah, we live in Hell. It was just somebody failing to be clever, I think."
"So I didn't imagine it," I said.
"What do you think it means?" he asked. "Because obviously you don't think it means nothing."
I shook my head, looking out at the rain sheeting down the glass again. Down on the street, a woman was standing with an umbrella above her. Her daughter was running in circles around her. She was laughing, which is why, even though she was still wearing her blue raincoat, I didn't recognize her at first.
But it was Alyssa Chapman. I wasn't mistaken this time. Her mother peered down lovingly, then shut her eyes and seemed to come to her senses. Her face fell, and she meandered towards the bus stop. Alyssa stood alone, watching her mother curiously, then scurried after her.
Theo, Ms. Vore and I were together in their kitchen the next day. Theo sat on the Formica counter, rifling through a cookbook and tapping the occasional page with a wooden spoon. Ms. Vore had gotten home earlier; she was teaching summer school, after all. Collage making for hoodlums, she said jokingly.
"They want to bake me brownies, but I wouldn't trust eating one," she'd informed us earlier.
The cluttered kitchen had a definite farm theme. There was a huge clock with a cow's face, a bunch of wooden roosters on the wall, and salt and pepper shakers in the shape of barns on the windowsills. Plastic Autumn corn hung in the window from a ribbon.
I was standing beside her. Ms. Vore was cutting up vegetables on a barn-shaped cutting board, to go with the tofu sizzling on the stove. Theo kicked the cupboards gently with her pink Converse. The patterns on the laces didn't match.
"I've never eaten tofu before," I admitted, eying the white, slimy-looking brick. "It always sounded like something out of a Goosebumps book to me, attack of the giant bean curd."
"The blob that ate Detroit," Theo offered.
Ms. Vore, or Lucy as she had told me I could call her out of school, chuckled.
"Well, it doesn't have much flavor in itself," Lucy explained. "It's all about how you cook it and what you cook it with. The way I'm making it now, it'll taste a little like chicken. And not like just like people always say. The texture is pretty close."
"Can I help you with anything?" I offered.
"You can get the red pepper out of the fridge. In the bottom drawer. Thanks, Ariel. Theo never wants to help with cooking."
"Because I like raw meat," Theo said cheerfully. As I retrieved the pepper, Theo tore the top of a bag of bacon bits with her teeth and ate them like raisins. I set the pepper down in a bowl next to Lucy, already brimming with vegetables.
"You won't love it when your cholesterol skyrockets," Lucy muttered, continuing to chop up the huge, purple-skinned red onion in front of her.
"My cholesterol is just fine," Theo said. "I don't want to live over 50, anyway. Gray hair would be hard to dye this color."
"Never have daughters," Lucy said to me, circling the chef's knife. "They will drive you nuts."
"Love you too, mommy," Theo said.
Lucy scraped the chopped up onions into the skillet and stirred them around with the tip of the knife. She joined me back at the kitchen island. "So what have you been doing with your summer, Ariel?"
"Oh, not much. Watching a lot of TV," I said. I couldn't vocalize how it really was, like my life had split in two — the time I had with Jenna, and "real" life with other people. Too bad being with Jenna sometimes felt the most real.
"She was waiting for me to stop being spastic," Theo said, a touch of forlornness in her voice. She pushed her glasses up. "But now that I'm rich, I think I'm okay."
"You know that money is going in your college fund," Lucy said sternly.
"Yeah, how dare you invest my money in higher education and not let me waste it all on candy and gadgets?" Theo said, rolling her eyes. Her phone buzzed, indicating a text. She peered at it and scoffed, shutting it. She then smacked me in the chest. "Hey, did you hear about this Hell Day crap?"
"The what with the huh?" I asked.
"Hell Day," Theo said, setting down the bacon trough and waving her arms around. "Apparently those Thorn Valley weirdos —"
"Thornhill," I corrected automatically.
"Whatever, anyway, they are having some big festival thing in a couple weekends. Complete with balloons and food on a stick and crap. And they're calling itHell Day, because that just sounds like a fun family affair, with pitchforks and Satan dropping by."
"You couldn't pay me to go," Lucy said. It was a stark contrast to Claire, who I assumed would want nothing more than to go. "I can't stand a single one of them. Don't tell anyone I said that."
"Oh, but mommy please?" Theo said. "It'll be so much fun having them look down on us and call us peasants..."
Lucy rolled her eyes and preheated the oven. I helped her finish everything up. Dinner was surprisingly good, although the textures were something to get used to. The tofu was close to chicken, and I ate most of what was on my plate, not just out of politeness.
Afterwords, we excused ourselves up to Theo's room to watch TV. On the walls of her room, she had framed many of her sketches and butted them up against each other. Like ivy crawling west across the drywall. On the other side of her bed, the wall was empty, where she hadn't filled it yet.
"It's not like I'm not a vegan just to spite her," Theo was explaining, even though I hadn't asked. "It's cool for my mom, and I know it's healthy. But I just can't give up on crap. Crap has done me well. And cheese! Oh the cheese!"
"You are the cheese," I said, laughing as she tossed a pillow at me. She had a great many pillows in different animal shapes. I rolled off of the bed onto the floor amass a pile of purple blankets.
"So how are things with you and the boyfriend going?" I quizzed. "Since nowI'mthe one living vicariously throughyourlove life."
She sighed, smoothing out the sheet below her. "There's been some tension. We went out to the big fancy dinner. At a steakhouse, mind you, because that is Alex's idea of fancy. That was a nice time. But he's been texting me nonstop and I don't feel like I have room to breath."
We were watching aLifetimemovie marathon about jilted women and drawing mustaches on catalog models with markers. Currently the actress' over-Botoxed face was on display, eye drop tears spilling down her cheeks. She reminded me a little of a young Cheryl Rhodes.
"What emotion is she trying to convey?" Theo asked. "Acid reflux?"
I laughed and rearranged her fallen blankets at the end of her bed.
"Your dad wants me to paint some more," she said, still watching the woman's acting attempt.
"Uh oh. You're not going to go into stress overdrive again, are you?" I asked.
"No. But it's going to take me some time to be ready again. I feel like I drained myself doing that mural. I just really want to excel at one thing, you know? Be really good at just one thing." She leaned back against the mountain of pillows.
"I think that's all anybody really wants," I said softly.
"That's who they've been fighting over?" Theo asked, looking over my shoulder. A beefy guy with ginormous eyebrows had sauntered onto the screen, fumbling over his lines. Both of us laughed again.
I looked up and was startled. Jenna stood just outside the room, scowling at me. Her look almost said that I'd been cheating on her. Her arms were crossed tightly, but after a moment of glaring at me, she dropped them to her side and walked away.
THE LIBRARY BECAMEmy respite. Not always to meet up with Henry, although I did on several occasions. Almost every few days, he texted me. But to readOther Worlds. And it felt like a neutral place, a place where I didn't have to pick one side or the other to live on. A place where I could leave the world outside, waiting, especially since the ghost of my friend always kept out.
Jenna had not been happy when I came home from Theo's sleepover. She complained to me that I'd picked a new friend over her.
"That's why you kept going off," Jenna said. "I kept wondering. Leaving me here to fend for myself."
"It wasn't intentional, Jenna..."
Part of me felt irrationally justified, since she'd done the same to me, no matter what her reasons. I hated that part. I didn't want to move on, but it was like I couldn't help it. Part of me knew I couldn't stay in the basement with Jenna forever. I couldn't stop time from going forward, even if I broke all of the clocks in the world.
My one fear at the library was that Nurse Callie would see Henry and I up there together, and report to my parents that he was a bad influence, but that never happened. We always came separately and split before we left the stacks.
I saw Cheryl Rhodes a few more times, but she didn't scare me as much, because I knew she had no idea who I was.
I usually stopped to chat with Callie whenever I'd see her. She gave me recommendations on good romance novels, although I didn't have the stomach for the stuff. She always asked me if I usually spent so much time inside, but I could only be honest. She admitted she was a homebody, too.
When Henry and I were together, Lainey might as well not have existed. Always sitting on opposite sides of the table, we mostly talked about safe things. Like what we had been doing with our summers, although I made myself sound busier than I actually had been. Oh yeah, I had been going places every day, all right. I was super duper popular.
I'd tried talking aboutOther Worldswith Jenna, but she was having none of it.
"Please do not turn into your crazy aunt. Or I will have full rights to disown you," she'd said.
The subject was dropped, as swiftly as that. If I could only bring the book with me...but it was far too big to copy, and Jenna never set foot in the library, not once. I chalked it up to her human aversion to the written word.
When a Limbo essence attaches itself to a person whom they knew before death,the book read, leaving off from earlier,They can see into the world from which they came, our world. But when things change, they don't understand it, and they may pull away.
And it felt like she was starting to do just that, like a sticker slowly curling up off a wall. But I didn't know how to pull her back.
One afternoon, I reached a more interesting chapter in the book. It was simply titledDark.
Fear and pain — those are the constant emotions in Dark. It doesn't take long for an essence trapped in this ring to start tearing itself apart. The spirit becomes corrupted to survive, or risks being wiped out entirely.
A corrupted spirit is identifiable by its black eyes, their body beginning to decay as though malnourished. The world of Dark is grim and hellish, storms always above, fire down below. Very few living can see into Dark, not without the aide of supernatural help...
I felt funny all of a sudden, like all the blood in my body had rushed towards my head at once. The letters swam, words ceasing to make sense. My vision blackened and went out like a blown out match.
It wasn't until I felt some unfamiliar woman shaking me that I realized I'd fainted. I had landed gracelessly on the carpeted floor. The older woman was hovering over me. She had puppies with black button eyes on her sweater.
"Are you okay, honey?" she asked, concerned, still shaking me gently.
I wanted to tell her to stop shaking me. But it felt like my lungs were full of bricks, and I couldn't catch my breath to speak. I waited for the room to stop spinning, for her features to cease doubling and center back in her wrinkled face. Onlookers gathered as I was laying there.
Finally, I found my voice. "I'm fine. I promise."
I sat up to make it look more convincing.
"Do you have low blood sugar? My granddaughter is hypoglycemic," she babbled, obviously trying to be helpful.
"Yeah, that's it. I just didn't eat anything this morning."
She shook her head. The puppies' button eyes glared at me reproachfully. "You young girls and not eating. You don't take care of yourselves." She had a very large mole on her chin. Possibly with other moles trying to grow from it.
"Well, thanks. I have to be going."
I hurried out of the library. I was in no mood for a lecture about my eating habits, and I wanted to get somewhere where I could sit and think.
Jenna had been in Dark, I'd seen her there last year. She'd had black eyes, and just the description of it...I could have written those paragraphs myself.
Now, somehow, she was in Limbo. But why and how? I almost contemplated just stealing the book, cursing myself for my morals. Being a goody two shoes was a pain sometimes.
It had started after I went to the orphanage, and I had a feeling Jenna being back had something to do with the time I'd lost. But the harder I tried to recall what I'd blocked out, the less I could remember.
When I got home, I sat beneath a tree in the backyard. It gave me a good view of our brand spanking new sliding glass door. I just wanted to be alone. Some clouds above obscured the relentless sun, and beneath the tree was one of the few clinging patches of grass that had survived.
Jenna sat down beside me, cross-legged. Of course I couldn't be alone, not even with my thoughts.
"You're so frustrating," I said, sighing.
"Kisses and hugs, right back atcha," she said grumpily.
"You've avoided every question I've tried to ask you about that night," I said softly, but there was a lot of annoyance beneath my words.
"Not this again," Jenna said, rolling her eyes and slumping against the tree. Luckily the trunk was big enough we didn't touch. But the otherworldly buzz came off of her in waves, making my hair go staticky like I'd rubbed it with a balloon.
"Shut up," I said. Even though I felt mad at myself for treating her that way again, I pushed it away. "Shut up and just listen to me. I've been reading about a place, a place where dead spirits go that's like Hell on earth. And I think you may have been there."
The imagery of all of my Dark hallucinations kept running through my mind whenever I blinked or closed my eyes. I opened them and saw butterflies fluttering over Claire's small garden beside the back walkout.
"Yeah, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" Jenna said bitterly.
"What happened to you?" I asked, listening to the electrical lines sizzle, an airplane flying overhead and leaving white trails in the sky. "Not just you leaving that night, but for months before that. It's like you changed all of a sudden. I didn't even know you."
Jenna just looked at me. "There was a lot going on. We've already been over this."
"There's always something going on. That doesn't mean that you just abandon your best friend. Like I wasn't good enough for you."
We sat silently, staring ahead. I wondered what she was seeing, and I thought it probably wasn't the same as what my eyes were taking in.
I wondered if I'd ever get her to open up. Maybe it was so bad she didn't want to remember.
Since the check from her painting cleared, Lucy had softened. Theo and I drove out of town for a shopping trip. Included in that trip was a visit to Bernhardt. I'd convinced her to go, after mentioning how interesting its history had been. And it was an excuse to drive, which Theo snapped up since she loved her newfound freedom.
Claire had also loosened to cage over me, since Theo and I were together again. She was an approved friend, since my mother knew that Theo was not a troublemaker. Lucy and Claire often had chats over coffee together on our porch, trading recipes, although Claire probably tossed most of them in the garbage.
As we passed the NOW LEAVING HELL sign, it was as though the heat wave broke a little and we could actually roll down the windows without dying. It felt liberating to drive by all the malls and restaurants, the edges of woods and just be out in the world. Having spent so much time indoors and in our little town, it was as though I'd forgotten how big the real world was.
We sang along to radio songs and drank iced mochas we procured from a fast food place. "Coffee and sugar, the perfect combo," Theo said, as she put them in cupholders. "These'll do the trick nicely."
I'd never had one before, but from a few sips, it felt like I had to bounce in my seat.
For the first time in a long time, I felt like a regular teenage girl. Like a weight had been yanked off of my shoulders, and I no longer had the burdens that had been plaguing me. I didn't realize they'd been there until now that they were gone.
Every dollar store we saw on the way was a must-see. We tried on fabric leis and Cowboy hats and dug through garish party cups shaped like palm trees. Theo bought a gigantic pair of neon orange sunglasses.
"Probably shouldn't drive with those," I suggested as we got back in the car.
"I suppose your right," she took them off and folded them in her lap. She rubbed her hands together. "What do you say we make a trip to Briarwood Mall?"
"You hate the mall. I think you're getting too much fresh air," I said suspiciously.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Theo said, tapping her hand on the Tinkerbelle steering wheel cover. "But we could people-watch and make fun of all the idiots and huge assault strollers."
But we vetoed the mall idea, since most of the girls who hung out there were Laineys and Madisons in training.
"Let's check out this old asylum instead," Theo said. "It should be interesting. In the daylight, of course."
"There was just a tiny thumbnail online. I barely know what it looks like, just that it's big and was ready to be condemned."
"Why do you want to visit it so much?" she finally asked. "I mean, it does sound like a cool place, but there are other haunts around here, I'm sure. Does it have a sorted past? Sorted pasts are amusing."
"No real reason. Just that it won't be around in its current incarnation for long. The encyclopedia entry said a lot of TB patients lost their lives there. Lots of patients died from treatments or escaped over the walls, too," I told her. I'd done a little research the night before, trying to find out whatever info I could. Nothing really had to do with Eleanor, though.
Using my phone, we got directions to Bernhardt, and navigated through the cheery, tree-lined streets. I didn't have a map, though, so we got turned around. Ann Arbor is a college town, with lots of poorly marked one-way streets and towering apartment buildings and old houses converted into student housing. It was easy to get lost, and the streets seemed to loop on forever.
"Who needs GPS when we have crinkly old maps from the glove compartment? Oh wait, we don't even have those," Theo said grumpily.
Finally, we located the place, but only because of the trio of green Dumpsters out front. It was protected by huge weeping willows that drooped towards the ground. The hospital was dark brick with white trim, thick ivy crawling up one side to the roof and blooming across the gutters.
It was an intimidatingly huge structure, of which we could only see the front building. Two others jutted off in the back. The trees leaned in as if to protect it from onlookers.
Trucks, utility vehicles and old cars were clustered together in the parking lot. We parked and strode up the broken cement front walk, which rolled out like a twisted gray tongue. Most of the windows were boarded up, some tagged with spray paint.
Inside, it smelled like cedar and disinfectant, masking layers of dust. Through the crumbling facade were the remains of a reception area, with little signs that pointed to Ward 1a and Ward 1b.
An old admission counter was set up along the back of the room. There was a dirty spot on the wall above, with two holes where a sign used to hang.
A woman in a brown sweater, with a long, gray-streaked braid, stood behind the counter, like a remnant of the past. For a moment, I wondered if she was real or a mannequin. She seemed so still.
Upon noticing us, the wax work came to life. She looked extremely surprised to see us.
"Can I help you ladies?" she asked, a bemused expression on her face. She was probably over fifty, but she had a strange, timeless quality about her, and despite the gray hair she seemed very young, as well.
Theo cleared her throat, and adopted a posture like she was older, standing taller. The fact that she was so short kind of diminished the effect.
"Hi, my name's Tonya. This is uh, Shakira." She gestured to me, and I could only nod my head slightly and go along with whatever devious scheme was hatching in her mind.
"Nice to meet you girls," the woman said. "I'm Diane."
"We're here to research an article for our student paper," Theo continued.
"Isn't school still out for the summer?" the woman asked, lingering doubt clouding her features. There was a map behind her, faded and yellow with time, outlining the first floor of the building. It clearly showed the rooms in Ward 1a, one of which was labeledRecords Room.
"It is, yes. But we're doing the summer break issue. And we thought a story on the history of this place would be interesting."
"I've been here for thirty years now," Diane told us. "Head Nurse. I'm your woman if you want to know about the history."
"We heard that the hospital hasn't been in use for some time," I said.
"Not most of it, no. In Ward 2 there's an outpatient clinic, and it also served as a methadone treatment center in the eighties and nineties. That's been shut down for the last few years, though. When St. Joseph's came in, it was like a life saver. No one knew what else to do with this place."
"Still, lack of sufficient mental health care for impoverished people is a very important social issue." Theo impressed the heck out of me, considering I knew she pulled that out of her butt. She missed her calling for improv acting.
Theo had pulled out a notebook from her messenger bag, which she always had a steady stock of to draw on when the mood struck. She started jotting down notes, although she might have just been scribbling.
"Why did they stop using the asylum?" Theo asked.
"It started with a lack of funding," Diane said, sighing. "Everything comes down to cash, doesn't it? State funding and donations grew much slimmer in the seventies. People don't always want to think about the mentally disadvantaged. They'd rather just ignore them and hope they go away."
"That's unfortunate," Theo said. "My aunt was in a facility like this one. She had severe mental issues, they really affected the whole family. And then there was the drug addiction...she'd steal pills out of the medicine cabinet, anything in a prescription bottle, even if it was a antacid."
I was shocked. I'd never heard about this mystery aunt.
"There are so many stories like that," the nurse nodded. "We could fill books. Every day there was a new set of people to try and help. It'll suck the soul right out of you."
My eyes continued taking in the details of the yellowed map, committing them to memory. "I'm sorry to interrupt. Is there still a working bathroom? It was a long drive here," I said.
"Sure, the plumbing's still on while they're doing the renovations. It's not pretty but it's functional. Follow me." Theo bobbed her head in my direction, staying put.
Diane led me down a narrow, bile-green hallway with chipped tile on the floors. It was dark from a lack of windows and most of the bulbs being broken out above. It looked more like the building should be knocked down than rebuilt.
She opened a door on the left, flipping on the light switch. There were dead flies and beetles in the fixture and on the grimy windowsill. Crumpled maple leaves were piled up on the floor, having gotten in through a triangular hole in the window. Two of the sinks had been torn out, leaving the pipes exposed. Only one filthy sink remained, with an out-of-place, cheerful bottle of hand soap.
"Like I said, not pretty," she said, smiling apologetically. "But you can get the job done. Toilet's in the corner."
She shut the door behind me and I listened to her footsteps retreating. The toilet was filthy, with rust around the base and a broken lid. But I wasn't concerned with using it anyway, despite guzzling the frozen mocha.
After listening at the door through a moment of silence, I slipped back out. I had mapped a route to the records room in my head. It shouldn't be far. I turned right then left and right again, the hallways tall but narrow. I was getting closer to construction, judging by the loud noises of material being ripped apart I heard ahead.
Records Roomread chipped red paint the door on the right. I tried the knob, hoping it wasn't locked. I was in luck, and it creaked open. The stained glass in the door had spots that were popped out.
The room was full of banker's boxes and filing cabinets, piled to the ceiling. Two huge waste cans in the corner were markedFor Incineration, and both were full of files and papers. The round electrical switch wasn't working, so the only dim light was from a trio of dirty windows. I stood still, feeling helpless. I had no idea where to begin.
It didn't help that I knew I was running on a very strict time limit. It wouldn't take long for Diane to realize I wasn't still in the bathroom, and come looking for me.
I dug through the metal filing cabinets, careful to mask the squeaks as I pulled out individual drawers. There was only a very, very slim chance I'd find Eleanor, but it was like playing the lottery. I closed my eyes, and for once, actually felt out my instincts. It took a second, but a faint kind of energy pulsed from my chest. I followed it.
There were files in water-stained boxes in the corner, labeled by year of admission. She had been here in the 1960s. One particular box seemed to radiate energy, around the middle of one of the stacks —2nd quarter 1964. I couldn't describe it; all the cheesiness about a sixth sense suddenly made sense to me. It was like reaching out with a limb I'd never known I had, both a hand and a foot and yet neither of those.
I lifted off the other boxes, leaving the one from 1964 exposed. Tearing off the lid, I started digging out the files.
Eleanor Hodgekiss was near the middle. The file itself felt sad and confused, the emotions clinging to the paper like the smell of mold. My phone buzzed, and I pulled it out, balancing the box.
Nurse is getting suspiciousTheo had warned.
I rolled up Eleanor's file and jammed it in my purse, then threw the rest of the files back in the box and left the room. The door banged behind me, and I winced. I stood still, hoping that no one had heard. Rough footsteps hit the tile, from the area of the construction.
A man in a yellow hardhat came around the corner, looking irritated at being disrupted. When he saw me, he scowled, clenching his hands into fists.
"Hey you!" he shouted. "What are you doing down here?"
WITHOUT WAITING FORmy reply, the construction worker roughly grabbed my arm. He was in his early thirties, but very muscular betneath the reflective vest he wore.
"Let's go," he said.
"I w-was in the bathroom. I got l-lost on my way back." I stuttered. He was twisting my arm and I had to shuffle my feet fast to keep up the pace with him. His arms were covered in wiry, black hair.
"Oh, right, that's original," he said, still gruffly dragging me back towards the front. "We've had to deal with a hell of a lot of troublemakers around here, coming in at all hours of the day. Have some respect."
The halls became more familiar. I dreaded the sign that said we were heading back to reception. We reached the check-in area, where a visibly strained Theo was still pretending to scribble notes in her notebook.
"We were starting to worry about you," Diane said, adjusting a cracked paperweight on her desk. She started fiddling with her gray braid.
I expected the orderly to rat me out. I think he was planning on it, too. But instead, he paused, assessing me. He glared, as if glaring was his only facial expression. "So you're okay with them here, Nurse D?"
"Sure. They're not causing any trouble," Diane said.
The bear of a construction worker stalked off, his utility belt clunking against his jeans.
"Long bathroom trip," I said softly.
"You aren't feeling sick, are you?" Diane asked, but I couldn't tell if she was genuinely concerned, or if she knew something was off and was just mocking me.
"No. But we do have to be going," I said. I could feel the weight of Eleanor's file in my purse, threatening to yank it off my shoulders. It had to just be my imagination. A roll of paper couldn't be that heavy.
"Do you think you have everything you need?" Diane asked Theo politely.
"Yes, definitely. Thanks for the ear, as well."
"Sure. Not much to do these days around here. They've only kept me on because they don't think they could get rid of me. I've been here so long, they'll have to demolish me, too. Send me a copy of your article when it's finished, okay, girls?"
We assured her we would. I almost thought about faking one to send to her later. We rushed out and to Theo's car, not talking until we were out of the shadow of the weeping willows. It made me a little sad to deceive such a kind, lonely person.
"That was interesting," Theo said, buckling herself in.
"Did you really have an aunt who had mental problems?"
"Nope, saw it onIntervention," she said triumphantly as we got back into the car. "I wasn't lying when I said that healthcare for poor people is woefully inadequate, though."
Soon, the Toyota was cruising down the expressway. Theo told me how Diane had talked about the renovation, and a few of her old patients, but mostly Theo had been filling the silence between she and the nurse with ever outlandish stories.
"There's only so much imagination in my head," Theo said, shaking her head. "It is a small head."
"Well, thanks for covering for me."
I could see rain in the sky, off in the West where we were heading. There was a periwinkle haze beneath the cloud's pregnant bellies, meaning the rain was falling hard for someone.
"So what were you gone so long for?" Theo asked finally.
I pulled the file out of my purse, snagging it on the zipper. In the car, with the cross breeze filtering through the windows, it reeked of mold and age. So I hadn't imagined the smell.
"What is that?"
"My grandmother's medical file. Claire had a copy of it, but she shredded it." I cracked open the cover, and started thumbing through it, but I couldn't concentrate enough to really read it yet. I was still buzzing with the excitement of getting caught but escaping by the skin of my teeth.
"Wow, how did you ever find that?" Theo asked.
"Luck," I said. But I figured I'd used up the little bit I'd got.
Rain began to pour when we got back into Hell, the wipers shrieking across the windshield. That was how rains came now: a slit would cut through the clouds, empty the water, and ten minutes later it would be dry again. The birds took off in great, gusty flocks, right into the howling wind.
I didn't want to get into reading the file until I was alone. It felt too personal to even have Theo nearby. I wondered if these would be the same files that Claire had shredded, but I figured the institution's documents would be even more thorough then what they'd send home with the patient.
Theo dropped me off at home, and I casually went down the stairs, after checking in with my parents. My shoulders felt heavy again for some odd reason, like I'd been lifted weights. Thunder rumbled outside, and I could still hear the rain pattering the ground.
Since her anger about me hanging out with Theo, Jenna usually only wandered up to me when she got bored. It had been a lot like that when she was alive, I'd realized.
But when I walked into the basement, she ran instantly to me. Lightning brightened the room in a flash and thunder cracked again. She seemed to run through the garbage on the floor, passing deftly through an ottoman and an old planter.
"Ariel!" she practically shouted at me. Her eyes were wide with what looked like fear.
"What's the matter?" I had to console myself with the fact that she wasn't alive, so she couldn't be hurt.
"Where we you?" she asked. "I didn't know where you were, it was like everything went gray. I didn't think you'd ever come back."
I remembered the feeling of weight coming off of my shoulders. And now they were heavy again...
"I couldn't find you," Jenna sniffled, as though she were crying from dry eyes. "I couldn't feel you anymore. There was fog outside the windows, and it kept getting thicker. I thought it was going to start coming in beneath the door..."
"Calm down. It's okay. There's no fog now, right? I'm here."
She kept babbling, not comforted by my words. If anything they only made her more manic.
"It was the thickest fog I've ever seen, and there were shapes in it. I couldn't make out what they were, but I think they were some kind of animals or creatures..."
"Now I think you're the one who's been watching too much horror," I said gently.
"You have to listen!" Jenna said, obviously close to completely freaking out. Without warning, she shot her arms out and grabbed a hold of both of my forearms. I only had a second to realize it before I was no longer in control of my body.
A bone-splitting shock rippled all the way up to my brain, obliterating rational thought and control. I dropped like a stone.
Someone was dragging my body. Over earth dotted with hard stones that cut into my back. Sticks ripped my shirt, my hair, like little needles in my scalp. I cracked my swollen eyes. I could feel the life draining out of me and into the ground, and I seemed lighter. I knew I didn't have much blood left in me, and my heart was beating very slowly, like the beat of an old waltz. My veins were almost empty, as though I'd been drained by an efficient vampire.
The person who was dragging me grunted. Through my eye-slits, I saw the gray black sky, smudgy charcoal, a dark fading into something impossibly darker. Rain fell on my face, sharp drops of silver. I tried moving my arms, but they didn't work. I didn't even feel that Ihadarms.
A bent, ugly tree hung over me, like it was watching the proceedings with great interest. Seagulls circled above, diving like vultures. The smell of dead fish and sewage made me want to gag.
The person who had been dragging me peered down at my lifeless body. It was a man, but that was all I could tell. A hood surrounded his face, cloaking it in shadow so I couldn't make out any of the features.
"She won't stop breathing," he said.
"That's why she's going into the water," another voice grunted not far off.
When I opened my eyes next, I was staring at a pair of neon blue pumps. I realized I was laying on the basement floor, spittle lazily flowing from my slack lips. I'd knocked over an old box of Claire's shoes when I went down. My head hurt from the impact on the hard floor.
Jenna was no where to be seen. I was all alone. It was darker outside. The rain sound, usually so comforting, made my stomach roll.
I barely made it to the utility sink before vomiting.
That night, I tucked into bed with Eleanor's medical file. I'd concealed it under a pile of sweaters in my closet, like a porno or something equally dirty, even though I knew Claire never ventured into my room. It felt too obvious leaving it anywhere else.
Propping the folder up on my knees, I flipped through the ancient pages. Some of the typewritten pages had coffee rings and fingerprints. I tried to imagine a doctor pulling them through his typewriter many years ago, scribbling out the misspelled words.
Quickly the contents of the file engrossed me. Eleanor was committed when she was seventeen. It was hard to associate this young girl with the grandma that I remembered. Most of it comprised of progress notes from her physician, a Dr. Wallace. His writing was difficult to make old, the old stereotype about doctor's handwriting being impossible to read.
She seems to be starting to crack open, Dr Wallace had written.Eleanor claims she began seeing spirits very suddenly. She kept it a secret from friends and family for as long as she could. It's only been in the last few months that she became unable to conceal her delusions. I asked her if she remembered a specific date when the visions started. She didn't hesitate to say her fifteenth birthday.
My blood frozen, nerves slithering a pattern down my neck. I'd had my first Jenna dream on my fifteenth birthday. I'd felt so off that day, like everything had changed color or shifted. And then I'd had the dream, of Jenna running to the orphanage, that had started this whole thing.
This knowledge both frightened and excited me. I had more in common with Eleanor than I thought. I wished she had been alive to talk to, instead of dusty, dead papers. Even as interesting as those dusty papers were, I knew I had questions they wouldn't be able to answer.
There were hundreds of pages crammed in the file, not organized very well, spanning several years. Since I was searching every detail, I combed each page for several minutes. The doctors at Bernhardt had diagnosed her as anxious, schizophrenic, and massively delusional.
Eleanor had a screaming fit today, and we had to bring in the straps. She's still refusing medication, and her daft-headed parents won't allow it without her say so. She said she keeps seeing images of a dark place in her mind.
I thought that would make me doubt my own sanity, after all, crazy ran in the family. But instead, it had the opposite effect. I believed her. It's just that no one else had.
That was the go-to excuse in the movies: the girl seeing the ghosts must be schizophrenic or delusional. No one ever believes when someone tells them they're seeing ghosts, because why would they? They want to go back to their white bread and clean sheets. Supernatural isn't safe.
But this was real. What I'd felt when I'd touched Jenna was real. And I was sure Eleanor's experiences had been real, too.
The hours on the clock ticked away steadily. I kept telling myself I'd get to sleep, and then I'd look and another forty minutes had passed.
We finally made an agreement to start Eleanor on a trial of medication. The electric therapy had made her weak, and had not had the positive turnout I've seen with other patients. She promised me that if the shocks didn't work, medication was next. I am just adjusting the dosages now, like beads on an abacus, and will report my results.
Another entry, dated two weeks later.Eleanor's progress has been stunning. She says she no longer sees the spirit delusions, they no longer visit her in her dreams. At twenty, she finally has the disposition of a girl her age, and has even been talking about courtship and a secretarial job when she is released from the asylum.
She still has minor side effects of nausea and lack of appetite, but with careful adjustments to the dose, these should be eliminated.
There was a prescription stapled to the paper. It was for diazepam, which I already knew was a kind of benzodiazepene, like the one I had been on. Diazepam was Valium, the little helper of the 1950s, as I'd been taught in home economics, of all places.
The doctor reported that she had swift progress, and in the next six weeks she was ready to leave. She was released in the fall of 1967, never to return, apparently. A success.
So it was the medication that made me stop seeing everything. I just sat on the bed with my mouth open. It made a lot of sense. The timing was exact. I felt angry at Claire, as well, even though I knew none of this was her fault. She obviously knew about Eleanor's mental issues, why else would she hide the file?
No wonder she hated it every time I brought up anything paranormal. She thought her mom was a recovered nutcase. She didn't want me to be like her.
I woke up the next morning after only sleeping four hours, still full of questions I couldn't ask. I got dressed, wanting to be out of the pajamas I'd sweated in all night. Jenna walked into the room like nothing had happened the night before. I hadn't see her since I'd had the hallucination.
"There is nothing to do. Summer is overrated." She said, dropping on my bed.
"What?" I asked, stunned. She had been so upset earlier.
"There's only so much sitting around to do. And we can't drive yet, since my cheapskate parents won't buy me a car," Jenna said, "And..."
"Hold on. So you're okay now?" I pulled my t-shirt over my head and stared at her.
"Why wouldn't I be?" It seemed the reset button in her mind had pressed since her freak out.
"You were having a full blown panic attack when I got back yesterday," I said.
"I'm fine, Ariel. I was just having a bad moment. I'm okay now." Her smile wasn't convincing, and she avoided my eyes. "I appreciate you caring."
No matter how much I pushed, she wouldn't discuss what had frightened her. When I asked her about what she'd seen when I was gone, she was vague.
"You said there was fog..."
"Yeah, it was probably the weather," she said with a dismissive flick of her hand.
Who are you trying to fool?I wanted to ask, but I kept my lips shut. I had enough of the circular conversation. I knew if I pushed it she would just shut down again.
THE SUMMER CONTINUEDto boil. If ever Hell was an appropriate name for our town, it was now. The dumping rains dried off. The omnipresent decorations drooped, plastic skulls and spiders melting into grotesque, deformed blobs.
In the hazy air the bright splotches of flowers wilted. A witch on the tree of the house across the street tilted so that she was dive-bombing the ground. The air conditioner in our house went on the fritz, and the repairmen were not coming fast enough.
And in this evil weather, Hugh got the idea in his head that we just had to attend Hell Day. I had expected Claire to be the one insistent on going, but instead she was parked in front of the oscillating fan with her pantyhose hiked down to her knees.
"Why do you care?" Claire whined, like a child with a case of the gimmes.
"Yeah, seriously, Hugh," I said. "It's just some stupid festival. Unless you're itching for some processed meat on a skewer, I don't see why it matters."
I had spent the day on the sofa myself, my face firmly planted in a box fan, making Darth Vader noises as Jenna snickered at the TV. Hugh had been a spaz all morning, pacing the house like a caged animal.
"I don't like what they're doing with Hell," Hugh said bluntly. He'd already donned a Lions baseball cap, his pointy ears sticking out. With his knobby knees beneath the hem of his shorts, he looked like an overgrown kid. I thought he might pick up a surf board and start saying "Gnarly, dude."
"What, renovating old buildings so they don't get squatters? Making Hell look decent and respectable for a change, instead of a hick town?" Claire asked incredulously. She dabbed her forehead with a folded napkin.
"No, Claire," Hugh said, biting off his words. I was surprised by his acidic tone. "I don't like the control they have over us. Every week it's something else they've taken over. "
"You're just mad that they're infringing on your part of town," Claire said.
"It's not helping things, no. All that noise and hassle has been driving customers away from Erasmus. We've seen sales drop fifteen percent in the last month, and summer is usually the time for buying. I know you think I just tend a collection of pretty finger paintings, Claire, but this is my business."
I remembered Henry telling me about Thornhill buying up the ballroom and the orphanage, about how his mom was allowed to come and go as she pleased at the library. They were spreading their money around a lot, sure, but when they had so much, odds are they barely felt it.
The heat seemed to slow my parents into grumpy turtles. Though it seemed like they were winding up for one of their annual shout-matches, they defused quickly. Instead of fighting more, they just glared at each other, killing each other with looks.
"Then you go," Claire offered, slumping back against the chair and fanning herself with her hand, as if that would make a difference. She seemed to be on the verge of unraveling, a loose thread being tugged from a shirt.
"I want my family standing in support of me," Hugh huffed. He was normally so good-humored and laid back, a socks with sandals type of person, and it was both strange and unnerving to see him wound so tight. "It won't take long. You can sacrifice one afternoon."
"What are you going to do, storm the podium?" I was joking, but he didn't look like the idea would be entirely rejected.
"It won't take long," Hugh repeated. "We'll just go, have a listen to what they're saying and maybe toss in some counterpoints, and then we can have ice cream."
"You know I'm on a diet," Claire snapped.
"Frozen yogurt, then." Hugh was desperate, he snapped off his words again. "It's important to keep up with local politics. Or before you know it they're pulling the wool over our eyes and making massive changes."
Claire stood and grabbed her purse, not so much won over as she was tired of being nagged. I sucked in my automatic sigh and pushed myself away from the comfort of the couch. We all shuffled outside towards the car, wincing in the sunshine.
"I'm gonna hang back," Jenna said at the door, and stuck her tongue out at me when I shot her a withering glance.
The seats burned my thighs as I slid onto the leather. I tried to appreciate the drive with the air conditioning cooling the drops of perspiration wetting my hair. But the tension of my stone silent parents made it impossible. I felt like I was missing a silent undercurrent, something deeper they didn't want to discuss.
Hell Day was being held in the massive parking lot of Hawthorne. I'd hoped I wouldn't have a reason to come up to the school during summer break. As we pulled closer I realized I hadn't missed it at all. A little twinge in the pit of my stomach reminded me of the first day of school.
A banner stand stretched above the entrance to the parking lot, bunches of colorful balloons suspended around a plywood platform that had been built in front of the school's staircase. Two vendors with hot dog carts and cotton candy, already dealing with lines of sweaty, grumpy patrons, stood off to the side.
Rows of folding chairs had been set up in front of the platform stage, but those were already filled by early birds. The rest of the onlookers were standing. If I had to guess, I'd say everyone in Hell was there.
Sticky-faced children ran in front of us. Claire, having donned a floppy straw hat, glared at Hugh. "Where to now?"
"There's an empty spot over there," he said, gesturing. Our family as a unit shuffled over to the opening in the throng of people. I hate crowds, they made me nervous, and this was no different, especially considering how loud and wound up everyone was.
The brim of Claire's hat drooped over her face, hiding her expression. It took several agonizing minutes in the heat until anything happened. Then the Mayor came up on stage and introduced Thornhill.
"Thanks for coming out today!" This was met by thunderous applause, as if everyone was giving themselves a pat on the back.
"The Thornhill Society truly embodies what small town values are about," the Mayor said. With his ill-fitting hellcats t-shirt and jeans and slick, oiled-back hair that seemed to be melting, he'd made a ridiculous effort at looking casual. "People coming together for the good of their neighbors, trying to improve things from the bottom up."
There was a loud throng of applause again as he excused himself, probably to his air conditioned limo with copious mini bar.
A group of Thornhill members took the stage. Henry, Lainey and Ambrose sat down first, on folding chairs in a row at the back. I was surprised to note that Madison, Lainey's best friend, was not among them. It was like seeing conjoined twins separated. McPherson was there too, and several well-dressed adults that seemed somewhat familiar but I couldn't put names to.
Both of Henry's parents were there, Phillip dressed in a slick looking dark gray suit, his mother in a red number. Ambrose and Henry were also wearing suits, but the way they were leaning away from each other made it seem like they hated each other. I could only imagine how warm they would be in this muggy afternoon, since my own fingers were already getting stuck together.
A man in front of us slopping hot dog relish on his plaid shirt kept craning his neck up to get a better look, blocking my view of the stage. Hugh and I shifted a bit to the side, but Claire seemed happy to be hidden.
McPherson took the stage next. He was just as out-of-place as I expected him to look: his tie was crooked, and his suit looked much cheaper than those of the other adults, several sizes too big. He seems much to eager to get to the microphone. Hugh seemed as surprised as I had been to see McPherson.
"What's Edgar doing up there?" he muttered, bracing himself with his arms and shifting from sandal to sandal. "Somebody needs to get the hook and drag him off."
"He announced they had accepted him as a member at the end of the year," I informed him.
His confused expression didn't abate. "How can that be?"
"I've only been part of this great group for a few months," McPherson said, his voice booming and ricocheting off of the crowd. "But already I've seen so much progress. Now and before. They've made numerous enhancements to Hawthorne during my time as Principal."
They're so vagueI thought. Everything they supposedly help with was aesthetic, like the ten foot tall Christmas tree they'd put in the town square last year, or the fountain that was bubbling in front of Hawthorne's steps.
It surprised me how much their kids were like props on the stage. Ambrose looked bored, Henry looked irritated and was leaning forward with his hands clasped between his knees. Only Lainey was preening, sitting up like a girl on a parade float paying rapt attention to McPherson's words. Birds flew overhead, cawing loudly. McPherson would not stop talking.
Finally, Phillip Rhodes stood up and took the microphone. His suit looked almost black in the noonday sun, with a yellow shirt beneath and a yellow triangle of a handkerchief poking out of his breast pocket. Like a wasp, stinging whatever he landed on.
"Hello, everyone," he began, with a charming, laser white smile. "I see some familiar faces, but many of us haven't met yet. I'm a native of Hell. We might have gone to school together years ago. I'm Phillip Rhodes, partner at Hesslebeck and Rhodes law firm."
The crowd had gone still, watching him, mesmerized. He was handsome, there was no doubt, and extremely charming. I also knew he could be a chilly jerk, which was why I wasn't so fond of him.
"I'm announcing today that I've been appointed the head of Thornhill. Though the original consensus was that we didn't need structured leadership, we want to be as efficient as possible. All of our committee members put it to a vote, and declared me the most qualified. I'm very humbled to take the position."
Hugh's jaw was set, the key jiggling worse than ever. He looked mad at Phillip's words.
"Second in command, as it were, is Cliff Ford." He swept his arm out, indicating Lainey's father whom I recognized from school conferences. He was the only one not in a suit, instead in a yellow and orange striped polo, open to show his chest hair. He waved a little. "Third is your own Principal McPherson."
That seemed even stranger. Not only was he a member, but one of the trio of leaders? That just couldn't be right.
"We've got a lot of exciting projects coming up. There are sign up sheets at the library, city hall, and around town where you can provide your email and be subscribed to our newsletter. We have big plans for Hell. And now, I'll be taking questions from the audience. But let's keep it brief so we can get back to the refreshments, huh?"
This made people giggle politely. It seemed like every hand shot up at once, the crowd growing taller with the extended limbs.
"You, sir." Phillip pointed to an overweight man in the front row, whose belly was pouching out over his shorts.
"It's been awfully hot this summer. And we've all been having trouble with our air conditioning. I get you can't do nothing about it for our homes, but what about at the grocery, and the city center? Can't you use some of that money to provide generators? Shouldn't you be prepared?"
"I understand your ire. Obviously, I'm not a meteorologist. Neither am I God. No one could have predicted this heat wave. We all know how wrong the weather forecast is. This has just been an unfortunately hot summer. But we'll discuss how to better manage cooling systems, and possibly provide those back-up generators you were talking about."
There were also complaints about lean crops, which he was equally dismissive about. I didn't blame him; there was nothing they could do about those, either. The town wanted him to donate money to the local agriculture to help make up for wasted crops.
"We all know about the unpredictability of Michigan weather," Rhodes said. "I remember as a kid, there'd be a five foot snow drift, and the next day it would be sunny enough to melt all the snow. But, again, that is another issue we can address as a committee."
This earned murmurs of agreement and laughter. Some kids let off their balloons and they took off into the air. I watched the round shapes become dots and disappear.
Then there were questions of where they put all their money. My question was, why were they buying up so many local buildings? But no one asked that; they seemed to enjoy the fact that they had pretty places to visit. From what I could tell, Henry was watching his father the entire time. The whole exchange was frankly pretty boring.
Sweat trickled down my back, pooling in my shorts. My legs were starting to ache from standing when we passed the hour mark. So much for hurrying to the refreshments.
"We understand your concerns, and we share them," Phillip continued. "Thornhill's mission is to help our town grow and prosper." His voice was even and comforting, but there was a condescending quality to it, like a father comforting a toddler. I wondered if others picked up on that.
I could definitely see where Henry got his charm from, though, but where Henry came off as genuine, Phillip came off as slick and untrustworthy, like a used car salesman. Something he had in common with Ambrose, whose father actually did own local dealerships. Mr. Slaughter was at the end of the stage, looking about ready to fall asleep. I had it on good authority that he had a loving relationship with Whiskey.
"What about the blackbirds?" a deep male voice called over the crowd. It took me a second to realize it belonged to my own father.
He was standing on his tiptoes. Probably just to be seen, but I got the image of a bear standing up to appear intimidating. His face was grave, as if to deliver bad news.
"What was that? I'm sorry, friend, can you repeat yourself?" Phillip asked, scanning the crowd for the speaker.
"What about all the birds, the pests that have been multiplying and destroying the lawns?" Hugh repeated slowly, using the same sickly patronizing tone Phillip had.
Claire let out an embarrassed gasp and pulled the brim of her hat down farther as people turned to stare at Hugh. I didn't miss the side-step she did away from Hugh.
"Can I have your name, sir?" Phillip asked flatly. He had located Hugh and was now staring at him. Other people had backed away a little, enough to leave our family exposed, out in the open.
"You don't remember me?" Hugh asked skeptically, with a cold grimace.
"No. I don't think so." Phillip said. It rung false.
Hugh's eyes narrowed to slits. "Hugh Donovan, in case you've become that senile in the intervening years. One of those old schoolmates you were discussing. We have more recent ties than that, but nevermind. And I was asking about the blackbirds. The starlings that have infested our town."
Phillip chuckled, his demeanor professionally cool. If he was irritated, he wasn't showing it. I looked at Henry and blushed. I knew he could see me, because he was watching Hugh, and he and my dad had been pals back in the day.
"There has been an influx of migratory birds, yes," Phillip said.
As if to prove Hugh's point, a huge flock of the birds in question flew across the assemblage, blocking out the sun. All eyes were riveted to the squawking birds as they flew up and away.
Hugh waited for them to veer off before he continued speaking. "A perfect example. It's not normal. Hot weather, lean crops, okay. But this is only limited to Hell. How can you act like it's just a fluke? Why not have the Audubon Society come? Or at least exterminate them, treat them like the pests they are?"
Phillip exchanged a quick glance with Lainey Ford's father, who had raised himself up on his backside a few inches from the chair but couldn't quite decide whether to jump all the way up. Ambrose looked like he was on the verge of laughter, Lainey looked like she was personally affronted, and Henry was flat, as usual. But he was still staring at us.
"What are you suggesting, some kind of chemical spill?" A few people joked, mocking Hugh, which only made him look more angry. Phillip continued, "We have a limited scope. There's only so much we're responsible for."
"Something is wrong," Hugh said firmly. "Whether or not anyone wants to recognize it. And all the infantilizing in the world isn't going to help us. You can't just hide behind the couch and hope the monsters will disappear."
"No one is hiding," Phillip said, sweeping his arms out. "We're all here. And I'll let you know that one of the biggest concentrations of birds is on my lawn, in my neighborhood. They're nothing but a nuisance. We've been talking to the city about proper containment options. These things just happen. And we don't want to do anything environmentally harmful. You just need some patience."
Hugh shut his trap, and didn't speak for the rest of the assembly.
We were the first family out of the parking lot. The instant the car doors shut, Hugh and Claire started fighting. And not just grumpy digs at each other; this was a brawl.
"Why would you antagonize Phillip Rhodes, in front of all those people? He's one of the biggest names in this town now." Claire was furious. Her cheeks were red from sunburn and embarrassment, her speech rapidly firing. She slammed down the center console after tossing in her sunglasses. "He has more money than God, and more respect than Mother Theresa. Everyone in town was there."
"That's exactly why I spoke up," Hugh said, eyes on the road. "Because everyone was there. Because it was a forum to be heard. Because Rhodes is an overrated jackass."
"It was supposed to be a celebration. That's why there were all the festivities. They don't offer cotton candy at a political debate. It wasn't a serious discourse, it was a carnival. You embarrassed our family!" Claire spat.
"Stop being so dramatic!" Hugh slammed on the brakes as an SUV pulled out in front of him. My torso jerked against the seatbelt. With a muttered curse, he yanked the wheel into the passing lane.
"I'm not being dramatic," Claire said, in what could only be described as a dramatic tone. "You caused a spectacle. It may not mean much to you to be the gossip of Hell, but it does to me."
"I could care less what Thornhill people think of me," he said harshly. "You shouldn't give half the crap you do. Do you think they'll actually ever accept you? It won't happen. You're a pedestrian to them, a pawn."
I cowered against the back seat, sliding my fingers across the seat belt. My eyes kept darting back between them, like watching a ping pong match. They argued sometimes, sure, but I could only count the number of full blown fights like this on one hand.
It was scaring me.
Jenna was sitting next to me now. It was almost like Jenna was my conscience or my shadow, the silent way she sometimes just was there. I became aware of her just before I turned and saw her.
"Ice cream all forgotten, huh?" she said.
I didn't want to speak, since I was supposed to be alone in the backseat.
"Just wait until they start using the D-word," Jenna whispered, watching my parents exaggerated gestures. "Divorce. That's when you have to start worrying."
They are not going to get a divorceI thought with shock. It had never crossed my mind, not my parents. It was the norm for my friends, but Hugh and Claire were a single entity, impossible to separate.
"That's what I said about my mom and dad," Jenna spoke bitterly. I wondered how she could hear me since I hadn't spoken aloud. "Just because you think it won't happen, doesn't mean it'll stop." My fingers made deep dents in the leather.
I caught my own wide eyes in the rearview mirror, bouncing along with the bumps in the road. They looked bloodshot and fearful, yet very young, like the eyes of a frightened child.