The blood didn’t bother Lily. It was the pain that kept her huddled in the corner, as far from her mom as she could get. The farther Lily moved away from her mom the less intense it was. Now, it only burned.
She looked for an escape and saw the bright green exit sign over the hospital door. She’d have to walk past the hospital bed to reach the door. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. Besides, she wouldn’t abandon her dad.
He glanced over like he knew Lily was thinking about him and forced a smile.
“Jacob!” her mom yelled.
He turned his attention back to his wife, patting her hand. “Breathe, Eliza,” he said.
“I see the head,” the doctor said, and then a minute later, “It’s a boy.”
“Wil,” Eliza gasped, reaching for the baby.
Wilard Jarvis Moiré—Lily voted against the name, mostly because he’d probably get creamed in kindergarten, but it was two to one, and she always lost.
The doctor deposited the red, squirming baby on her mom’s chest while he suctioned the mouth and nose. Wil let out a piercing scream. From across the room, Lily felt the cry like an electric jolt. The air around her shuddered as if a train rushed past. She looked up frightened, but no one else appeared disturbed.
A nurse handed Jacob a pair of medical scissors to cut the cord.
The spherical birthmark on Lily’s right palm burned and shot fire up her arm into her lungs. She couldn’t breathe. Something horrible was rushing towards them from every direction. She didn’t know what it was, but she knew it was almost there. Her eyes flew around the room and searched out the window for some sign of the presence she felt coming. There was nothing.
Wil’s screams grew frantic.
The edge of something acrid pressed against Lily’s awareness, and she squeezed her fists against her eyelids, bracing herself for the onslaught of whatever was coming. A deathly stillness crept into the room, seeping in like a poisonous gas. Cold tendrils pushed past her. The lights dimmed and flickered.
Wil’s crying stopped. The room was as quiet as a morgue. Even the buzzing and beeping of machines faded into the background, gradually disappearing altogether in the heavy hush that settled over the room. Lily pried open her eyes. No one moved.
The cry that shattered the silence was not Wil’s.
“He’s not breathing,” Eliza cried, urgently rubbing her now limp baby. “He’s not breathing!”
A nurse snatched the baby up and laid him on a small bed with lights glaring on his blue tinted skin. “No pulse!”
“Get a crash cart in here now!” ordered the doctor.
The noise rushed back into the room. Machine alarms jumbled together with people charging about the room barking orders and yelling stats. Everything moved and made noise—everything except Wil.
Only glimpses of the tiny still form of Lily’s baby brother were visible though the hurricane of hands hurrying around him. More nurses and more hands maneuvered in and out, all working on Wil but none able to encourage anything that would suggest life.
Finally the doctor stepped back in defeat. “Call it,” he said, pulling off his latex gloves with an angry snap.
“8:24,” one of the nurses said. She flipped a switch and stilled the monotone beep that announced the end. The nurses filed out one by one while the doctor tried to comfort her parents. Then even he walked out, and all that was left in the center of the room were Wil and the awful, grim stillness.
In the quiet of the room, Lily heard her parents weeping. Her mom clung to her dad with her face buried in his shoulder. That wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
Lily wanted to hide. She didn’t want to see the tiny, pallid baby on the table, but she couldn’t look away. The need to go to Wil’s lifeless body overwhelmed her. Her feet dragged her forward. Lily’s eyes remained locked on Wil’s still form; her hand persisted in closing the gap between his body and hers until the birthmark on her palm touched his heel.
Lily hissed in pain and yanked her hand back. Her palm burned as if she’d grabbed a branding iron. Then she saw it—Wil’s foot where she’d touched it was pink. The color held only a moment until the shadowy gray crept forward. Lily forced herself to grasp his foot again, gritting her teeth against the pain.
Pink spread out beneath her hand, traveled up his leg, out his other limbs, and to the very top of his head. When the last grayish blue patch of skin turned the color of a Texas sunrise, Wil coughed and filled his lungs with air. He drew another shuddering breath.
Jacob rushed forward. He looked from Wil to Lily and back again. “Thank you,” he whispered as he gently picked up Wil, handing him to Eliza.
Tears coursed down her cheeks while she held the squalling baby close.
Jacob reached up and removed his necklace. A leather strap with a smoky blue stone dangled from his fingers, and he gently wrapped it around Wil’s ankle. Jacob looked into the troubled eyes of his wife. “I think he needs it more than I do.”
Lily breathed a sigh of relief. All lingering remnants of darkness fled and a peaceful sense enveloped the room. She swayed and leaned on the rail of the hospital bed, drained of the energy she somehow poured into her baby brother. Black splotches clustered around the edges of her vision. Her dad wrapped an arm around her as her knees buckled.
Lily felt a grim satisfaction as the room faded. Whatever had come for Wil left empty-handed. She’d won; her baby brother was alive.
A howling wail shattered the warm summer day in the park, interrupting the conversation between Lily and her dad. A little boy lay on the ground sobbing, his legs tangled in his scooter.
Lily tensed. It had been a year since Wil’s strange birth and she still wasn’t used to this new awareness. It always happened when someone got hurt—an overwhelming instinct to help kicked in and it was almost impossible to hold back. This time it was worse. The pull was stronger and she was at the boys side before she could stop herself. She untangled him from his scooter and pulled him onto her lap.
“Hey, that was quite a spill you took,” she said. She straightened his clothes, and her hand brushed against a necklace with a bird claw grasping a stone. It was similar to the one Wil wore, except Wil’s had a whole stone and this one was only a shard of a slightly different shade of blue.
“Where’d you get this?” Lily asked, fingering the boy’s necklace. He sniffed and mumbled something incoherent into her shirt.
“Alex are you okay?” A man who must have been the boy’s dad squatted down and held his hands out. Alex snuggled up against Lily, and his dad frowned.
Lily used the hem of her shirt to dab a tiny smear of blood off the boy’s hand. “He skinned up his knee and hands, but I don’t think he broke any bones,” Lily said smiling. She glanced to her own dad and then meaningfully jerked her eyes down at the boy’s necklace.
Jacob came down on one knee, reached out, and touched the necklace. “I have a necklace very similar to this. Where’d you get it?”
Abruptly, the boy’s father lifted his son from Lily’s lap. “Thanks for your help.” He held the boy in one arm and quickly tucked the necklace into his son’s shirt with the other hand.
“Could you tell me where you got that?” Jacob persisted, getting closer to them.
“No.” The man bent down and grabbed the scooter. “I really can’t.”
“Please,” Jacob quietly said. “It’s a talisman, right? For safety…” he trailed off.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The man turned to leave.
“Wait.” Jacob pushed his sleeve back. A birthmark shaped like a bird with outstretched wings was on the underside of his left forearm. “Have you ever seen this before?” The man stared at the mark on her dad’s arm, and Jacob continued, “My daughter and I both have one. Are there others like us?”
The man ‘s eyes remained fixed on the birthmark except for a split second that he glanced at his own hand. Lily followed his eyes. Part of a half dollar sized bird showed from behind the watch. She looked at her dad; he’d seen it too. Lily tried to see if the boy had a mark, but if he did, it wasn’t visible.
“We need another talisman,” Jacob said. “I only have one, and both my son and I need it.”
The man studied Jacob and then spoke in muted tones. “Go talk to your Cogent if you need a talisman. You know the rules.”
“What’s a Cogent?”
The man looked strangely at them as if he’d just been asked, ‘What’s a tree?’ He furtively glanced around. “This isn’t a very good place to talk,” he said under his breath as a lady with a stroller walked by. “Give me your name and number, and I’ll have a Cogent contact you.”
Jacob fished in his pocket for a paper and pen. He came up empty. “Or you could give me a name,” he said, digging in another pocket.
The man frowned and shook his head. “He’ll come to you.”
Jacob grabbed his wallet and pulled a business card out. The card was a little bent, and he straightened it before handing it over. “We’ll be waiting.”
The man shoved the card in his pocket and left.
“What’s really going on?” Lily said a few days later. “Why are we here?”
Jacob removed a Pack ‘n Play from the trunk and set it on the ground. “Grandma and Grandpa are always saying how we don’t visit enough.”
“We were here two weeks ago, and you had to take time off work to come.” Lily caught the back straps of Wil’s overalls as he lost his balance. He kicked in the air, laughing happily. The talisman on the band around Wil’s ankle jingled. “Don’t get me wrong. I love Grandma’s, but why are we really here?” Lily lowered Wil back to the ground and released him when he got his feet under himself again.
Jacob looked at the house where Eliza was carrying a bag through the front door. “I know it’s a long shot, but the other day I picked up Wil’s rock.”
“Gooby?” Lily rolled her eyes just thinking about the softball-sized, gray lump of stone that Wil loved like it was a pet. He couldn’t exactly carry it around, but he pushed it here and there or convinced others to carry it for him.
“Is he still calling it that?” Jacob asked, and Lily nodded. “Well, I picked up Gooby the other day,” he continued, “and I got a distinct impression that there’s a talisman in the Jarvis boxes. It was so clear almost like I was being shown exactly where to look.”
Lily very carefully schooled her features so she didn’t show what she was really thinking. The Jarvis boxes were something else that made her roll her eyes.
Her grandparents had a couple old moving boxes with “Jarvis” written on the sides. They were filled with weird, random stuff as if they were the last couple boxes packed, and everything that had been forgotten, along with a couple junk drawers, was dumped in them.
The part that bothered Lily most was she was pretty sure that was where her parents got the “Jarvis” in Wilard Jarvis Moiré. It was weird because no one knew anyone named Jarvis so the boxes were probably used by someone else before her grandparents got them. Lily hoped for Wil’s sake he never found out he was named after old, hand-me-down cardboard moving boxes.
“Dad,” Lily said with a slow sigh. “You’ve already gone through them looking for a talisman, what, five… six times?”
“Yeah,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “But the impression I got was a cut green stone that’s been sealed in an envelope and stuck inside the cover of a book. That’s pretty specific. What can it hurt to look one more time?”
His enthusiasm made Lily smile despite her skepticism. She gestured towards the luggage. “Do you want me to get something?”
“If you keep an eye on Wil, I’ll get it.” Jacob set the last bag on the driveway. “I can’t believe how much luggage you have Wil.” He grabbed Wil and tossed him in the air. Wil squealed as he was caught. “I can’t believe how big he’s getting,” Jacob said, putting Wil down and looking at Lily. “I can’t believe how grown up you are. You’re like five now, right?” He grinned at Lily and closed the trunk.
Lily caught the trunk lid before it closed, pushing Wil’s hand out of the way. “I’m 13, Daddy.” She said “Daddy” with a tiny sarcastic twist that was made friendly with a smile as she herded Wil towards the house.
Lily and Wil made it as far as the sidewalk when Wil plopped on his bum next to a dandelion. Lily bent to scoop him up. When she stood she was surprised to see two men standing in the yard next to her dad, talking. They hadn’t been there a moment before.
She looked around for their car. There wasn’t one. Lily frowned. Her grandparents lived on a farm house miles from the closest neighbor, she would have seen the men approach on foot. A chill settled in the small of Lily’s back. She saddled Wil on her hip and cautiously went closer.
Jacob glanced back and then turned slightly so he was almost including Lily, but still kept himself between the men and Lily and Wil. “I thought you were taking Wil inside,” he said casually. His eyes clearly told her—“leave.”
The two men were both handsome in a very put-together, no-mistakes, shrewd way. One man was taller with a business suit. The other guy had a well-trimmed body with shoulder length black hair.
“Are these your children?” This was the business-suit man, and his voice was a menacing purr.
“Yes,” Jacob said, using his body to hide his motioning Lily away. Lily backed up a step and turned to leave.
“Girl,” the business-suit man said. “Wait a small moment, please.”
Lily stopped and slowly turned around. She suddenly felt the need to let the man know she wasn’t afraid of him. She looked straight into his eyes. He met her eyes and held them. In that moment, she realized that might not have been the best approach, but she was committed now and didn’t look away.
The guy with long hair cleared his throat. “We were wondering if you also had a Macula.”
That made no sense to Lily. She looked at her dad, but he seemed as confused as she was.
The man gestured to his neck. Almost hidden by his t-shirt was the bird with outstretched wings.
“Our birthmarks?” Jacob asked.
For a moment the men seemed thrown off guard, but they quickly masked it.
“You were born with it?” the business-suit man asked, looking at Jacob.
“It’s been there as long as I can remember,” Jacob said.
The long haired guy made a grab at Jacob’s wrist, but the business-suit man moved with incredible speed and clamped onto the guy’s arm, stopping him at the last second.
The business suit man smiled very purposefully and said in a cheerful voice, “You don’t happen to have any other birthmarks?—Say on your left palm.”
Lily’s heart beat faster. Her dad didn’t have one. But she did. She closed her right hand. The men’s reaction showed they were keenly interested in the mark, and she wasn’t sure why. Lily’s instinct was to hide it.
She shifted Wil around to her right side, wrapped her right arm around him, and clamped her hand with the circular birthmark on Wil’s thigh. She edged back a step, wondering if she could get into the house without being noticed.
The business-suit man looked pointedly at Lily as if telling her he knew she was moving away. “Were you born with your Macula as well?”
Lily glanced at her dad and thought she could hear him in her head. “Lie.”
“Um, no. I got mine later.” Lily put on a face like she was worried. “Is that bad?” Then she briefly held up her left hand, palm out. “No other marks.”
“Are you going to be able to get me another talisman or not?” Jacob asked, before they could ask any more questions.
“Yes,” the business-suit man said. “For a price.”
Jacob stood there silently, waiting for the man to continue.
The business-suit man chuckled as if he found this all very amusing. “A hundred thousand dollars, all paid up front.”
“What?!” Lily would have swallowed her gum if she’d been chewing any.
Jacob put up his hand to hush her, and said in an incredibly claim voice, “A hundred thousand is a bit steep. I have another source I’ll check with, but thanks anyway.”
The man laughed a tiny bit. “Who can put a price on a life? Is your wife already pregnant? Or are you just planning ahead?”
Jacob looked confused. “It’s for me.”
The men glanced at each other and the business suit man asked, “You still need a talisman?”
Jacob paused. “If you can’t come down on the price, then this conversation is over.”
“There’s room for negotiation,” the business suit man said.
“Do you have it with you? I need to see it.”
“We will need to come to an agreement on price before you see it.”
Jacob frowned. “How can we agree on a price if I haven’t seen it to check the quality and make sure it’s even real?”
The business suit man nodded like he was relenting. “We’ll send someone later today to take care of this.” The two men turned and walked away. Lily and Jacob watched until they were a long way down the street.
“Lily,” Jacob’s voice was low and somber, “you should have taken Wil inside.”
“Sorry,” Lily said.
Jacob nodded. “We’re going to have to be more careful from now on. I thought finding others like us would be helpful. Hopefully I didn’t put you and Wil in more danger.”
“Dad,” Lily said. “We’ll be fine.”
Jacob turned and looked her in the eye. “But no matter what happens, you and Wil have to stick together. You need each other.”
“Dad.” Lily frowned.
“It’s true. The only thing I can do for him is give him my talisman. Even with it he’d be lucky to last a few days without you. And look at how many things you can do now that you couldn’t before Wil: healing cuts, sensing trouble, protecting everyone around you.”
She hated it when her dad talked like this. Her eyes burned, and she felt like she had a mountain lodged in her throat. “I can’t protect everyone.” She looked at Wil, hoping her dad would think she wasn’t paying attention and would stop.
“Maybe not yet, but maybe someday.”
Lily made a face at Wil. “That’s a pretty big maybe.” Wil tilted his head to the side and watched her, his eyes a startling blue. She looked away. “I couldn’t even tell that that was a bad situation until I walked up.”
“I know you can do it,” Jacob said. “Promise me Lily. Promise you’ll protect Wil.”
She sort of nodded, but didn’t say anything. Then she realized he was waiting for her to answer out loud. “I will Dad, promise.”
Lily looked down the street the way the two men had gone. Her dad wrapped his arm around her.
“I don’t like the whole situation.” Jacob sighed. “That was not what I had hoped for when the guy at the park said he’d have a Cogent contact us.”
Lily nodded. “What’s really creepy is you gave the guy in the park your business card. It didn’t have our home address on it, and it didn’t have Grandma’s address 200 miles away.”
Jacob frowned. “We’ll have to be extra careful dealing with any Cogent. They aren’t people to be trusted.”
Wil kicked his legs happily and pointed to the rocks in the driveway. “Ock, Ock.”
“Yes, Wil,” Lily said, releasing the breath she’d been holding. “Rocks.” She put him down.
Jacob smiled. “I never thought I’d say this as a parent but—I’m so glad you lied.”
“Mom, where are the Jarvis Boxes?” Jacob stood in the middle of his parents’ kitchen knocking insulation dust from his hair and clothes.
“Oh, we moved them out to the shed a few months ago. Grandpa got into one of his cleaning moods.” Grandma Moiré scooped the last of the chocolate chip cookie dough from her ceramic mixing bowl and deposited it on a cookie sheet, finishing the perfectly even rows. “I just took a fresh batch of cookies out of the oven. You can have one as soon as you sweep up that mess,” she said, nodding towards the insulation dust settling on her sparking linoleum floor.
Jacob glanced distractedly at the floor and then out the window. The leaves twisted and bent as the wind charged through the trees in violent gusts.
“It’s going to storm,” Grandma Moiré said, watching him. “You might as well wait it out before you go digging around in that old shed.”
He frowned. “It can’t wait.” He headed to the back door.
“Jacob.” Eliza started after her husband. He didn’t turn around, walking headlong towards the shed through the swirling dust and sticks. Eliza paused long enough to hand Wil to Lily. “Stay here and take care of Wil.”
Lily looked out the window at the storm that hadn’t quite gotten there and then at her grandma.
“It’s fine.” Grandma Moiré set the cookies aside. “Stay here; we’ll be right back.” She wiped her hands on her apron and caught the door before it closed.
Lily put Wil down and snatched a hunk of dough from the cookie sheet. Then she looked out the window again. Her parents and grandma made it into the shed just as the rain started. A feeling of dread crept over Lily.
“Where’d everyone go?” Grandpa asked, coming into the kitchen. “Heck of a storm brewing out there, maybe even a tornado.”
“Dad wants to look through the Jarvis Boxes, so everyone’s out in the shed,” Lily said.
“The Jarvis Boxes?” Grandpa said. “They aren’t out there. I moved ‘em back inside last week. They’re in the closet in the back bedroom.”
An old rocking chair hurled across the back porch and crashed into the side of the house. She and Grandpa both jumped, Wil clamping onto Lily’s leg as splinters of wood launched in every direction.
“I’d better go rescue those guys.” He tried to sound jovial, but his voice was high and pinched. He pulled the door open. The wind grabbed the screen out of his hand, throwing it into the side of the house. He heaved the door closed but left the screen brutally knocking on the clapboard siding. He staggered against the wind and rain with his arms over his face to protect himself from the flying debris. Lightning slashed through the sky and exploded a heartbeat later.
The lights in the house blinked out, and Wil whimpered, putting his arms up.
“It’s okay buddy,” Lily said, picking him up. She knew it wasn’t. Something was here. The same evil that had been chasing them since Wil was born, except stronger. She couldn’t see anything out the window except a storm, but she could feel its presence. Lily watched as Grandpa disappeared into the shed.
Seething gray clouds were outlined with flickering bursts of light. Then a menacing tendril took on a life of its own and detached from the boiling mass of clouds. It rode the air currents towards the house.
Lily rubbed her sleeve over the fog that her haggard breath formed on the window. More dark wisps of cloud drew closer and solidified into shadowy figures with deep hollow eyes. Lightning cut through the air, leaving a glowing gap in the blackened sky.
A creature stepped through the gap onto the ground. He looked human except for the row of horns that protruded from his dense, fibrous skin along the back of his head and tapered off at the base of the neck. His well-muscled torso was bare except for a ragged, gossamer cloak that hung from his shoulders. His body shimmered, and you could almost see through him where his cloak covered him.
He looked right at Lily with burning eyes, and she jumped back, cowering against the wall. Wil cried out.
“Shhh,” Lily whispered. She needed to warn her parents and grandparents. She had to do something. She set Wil down and tried to think. Her dad’s voice crowded her mind:
“Promise me Lily. Promise you’ll protect Wil.”
Lily’s eyes filled with tears. If she went to warn her parents, if she tried to help them, no one would be here to protect Wil. And she couldn’t take Wil out there.
Her hand shook as she pushed the curtain back and peered out at the creature. He was closer now, by the shed. A flash of lightning flew out of the sky and was absorbed into his leathery gray skin. His muscles bulged, and his lips drew back over his fang-like teeth as he pushed his palms towards each other an inch at a time. A deadly energy arced between his hands, condensing into a ball of lightning so thick it blocked the monster from her view. When the orb was almost too bright to look at, he hurled it forward.
Lily threw herself down, covering Wil’s body with her own. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip to keep from screaming while the world around her shook. Glass shattered, and the house groaned. Then everything stilled.
Lily inhaled and exhaled heavily, summoning the courage to get up and see the destruction outside. She crawled back to the window, brushing aside broken glass and bits of cookie. Wil clung to her shirt, his bright blue eyes wide with fear. She climbed her hand up the wall to the windowsill and pulled herself up.
The demon and shadowy figures were gone, but so was the shed. A pile of sticks littered the concrete foundation. It was as if a tornado had touched down and sat still, sending all its fury into one location.
Lily’s breath escaped in great broken gulps as she choked on the scene before her. Her eyes scanned the debris, looking for any sign of her parents or grandparents. In the rubble that used to be the doorway, she saw a hand move. It was just a twitch. It was enough. She scooped up Wil and raced out the door. When she got closer, she recognized the bracelet on the wrist.
“Mom!” she screamed. “Mom, hold on!” Her mom had to be okay, she just had to. And if her mom made it, maybe everyone else did, too.
Lily carefully shut her grandparents’ back bedroom door. It was strange how musty smelling an empty house got, even after only a few weeks.
“Hurry up,” Eliza called from the family room. “We have an hour before the auctioneers get here.”
They were there to clean out a few things before they turned the place over to auctioneers. Lily heard Wil outside the door, his little shoes shuffling around as he tried to reach the doorknob.
He’d taken to following Lily everywhere since the accident. She mostly chose not to think about the accident, but it was hard not to remember because of how clingy Wil had become. It was a constant reminder that everything about their lives had changed when her dad and grandparents had died.
Lily grabbed the corner of the first of two boxes and heaved it from the closet. It came up to her waist and was equally wide. The name “Jarvis,” which someone had so neatly written on the side with black sharpie, was starting to fade. She opened it and riffled through the contents: a newborn’s sailor outfit and matching blanket, a handwritten map titled “Energy Farms of Marshall,” dusty leather-bound books. She checked inside the cover of every book and then dug through other odd trinkets without a glimpse of a talisman or an envelope that might have one.
She hauled the second box out. It was more than half empty—a newspaper clipping of a wedding, a letter addressed to Dr. John Whitley, M.D., various bills and receipts. It was as if someone had dumped the contents of a filing cabinet into this box. She rustled around in the box, and something caught her eye. Beneath a pile of discarded documents, a book was buried.
She pulled it out and flipped it open. Tucked inside the front cover was a sealed, yellowed envelope. She snatched it from the book as if it were in danger of disappearing. The book thudded back into the box. Lily’s heart beat in her throat as she held the envelope.
Written on the outside in cursive was a short note: “To be returned to the Trammell Passel Treasury.”
Lily’s hand shook. Somehow she knew this envelope was the one her father had been looking for. She ripped the end of the envelope and dumped a delicate silver chain-link bracelet in her hand. Two halves of a green stone were embedded in silver with a small bird claw clasping each side of the pendant and then linking to the chain. The stone glinted up at her. Lily could tell it was a talisman, unlike an ordinary bracelet, it had a unique vibe running through it just like Wil’s.
She gently slid the bracelet back into the envelope, folded the ripped end, and slipped it into her pocket. She wasn’t sure whether to be happy or sad. If her dad had found the talisman before…. She shook her head. It was useless to think about now.
She picked up a pile of stuff she’d set onto the floor and dumped it back into one of the boxes when the cover of the book caught her eye. She stared at it, then reached in and picked it up. On the spine was a symbol like the birthmark on her right palm. The same symbol was embossed on the front, and printed beneath it in fancy script was “Camden Wilard Jarvis.”
That was Wil’s name, at least part of it. She grabbed another sheet of paper and looked for a name: a bill of some kind addressed to Camden and Sophie Jarvis. She knew the boxes belonged to someone else first but always assumed that the contents were her grandparents’, like when your friends give you boxes for a move and your dishes end up packed in a box already marked “towels.” These boxes obviously came with the contents already inside. Wil hadn’t been named after the old moving boxes but the people the boxes came from.
Someone had to have known a Jarvis, or the boxes wouldn’t be here, which means someone lied—either her grandparents or her dad, maybe both. A thousand questions formed in Lily’s mind.
“Let’s go. There’s nothing here I want.” Eliza opened the door and glanced at the piles on the floor. Her voice was the dull monotone of someone who didn’t want to feel anymore and could barely cope with breathing.
Lily whisked the book behind her back. “I want the Jarvis Boxes.” Lily turned around and stuffed things back into one of the boxes. She placed the book on top.
“No,” Eliza said.
Lily faced her mother. Standing straight, she addressed her mom again. “I want the Jarvis Boxes.”
“There’s nothing in them that you need,” Eliza said in the same dead voice, then she added under her breath, “Certainly nothing worth dying to get.”
“Mom,” Lily said. “I want the Jarvis Boxes.” She wasn’t sure why she was fighting for them. She hated them almost as much as her mom did. Because of them, her dad was dead, yet she couldn’t bring herself to leave them. The boxes had been important to her dad.
Lily looked at the cold, unfeeling expression on her mom’s face and almost decided it wasn’t worth the fight. Then, Lily thought of the book with Wil’s name. He deserved to have that. He wouldn’t remember their dad, but he should at least have the book he was named after and the other stuff in the boxes. She took a deep breath and met her mom’s look head on.
“Mom, did you know these boxes have stuff about….” She didn’t have a name for what she, Wil, and her dad were. “Don’t you want to know what it’s all about? What that creature was and why it came after dad—”
Eliza slapped her. For a moment they stared at each other, both in shock at what had happened. Eliza backed away a step. “I told you before, there’s no such thing as creatures and demons,” Eliza said in a shaky voice. Then, she looked at the floor and swallowed hard. “Fine.” Her shoulders dropped in defeat. “Put them in the car.” She walked away.
Lily put a hand to her burning cheek and stared at the two boxes. She’d never be able to get them both in the car. She picked up the emptier one and dumped it into the other. A few papers spilled, and she had to jostle things around to get everything to fit but was able to mostly tuck the flaps closed.
It took Lily ten minutes to get the box down the hall because she was constantly bumping into Wil. “Wil buddy, don’t follow me so close,” she said for the sixteenth time.
Wil looked up at her with sad blue eyes. He put his hands up and whimpered.
“I can’t pick you up right now. Go to mom,” Lily said. She sighed in frustration when he grabbed her pant leg with both hands and buried his face. She wasn’t going anywhere. She growled, picked him up, and walked outside to where their mom was standing next to the car. “Mom,” she said, and tried to hand Wil off.
Eliza stepped back, folding her arms against herself.
“Mom?” Lily said, stunned by her reaction.
Eliza shook her head, taking another step back. “I can’t do it, Lily. I just can’t.” She looked towards the empty spot where the shed used to be, and her voice broke. “It’s his fault.” She nodded towards Wil. “If Jacob hadn’t given him his talisman….” She couldn’t finish.
Lily gasped at the realization that if her mom could have chosen, her dad would have survived, not Wil. Lily hugged her little brother defensively and carried him back into the house. What would she have chosen? Her whole body trembled at the thought. She quit thinking about it, glad it wasn’t her decision to make. Her dad chose to give Wil his talisman, and he hadn’t done it blindly.
Four Years Later
Seventeen year-old Lily pulled a pair of shorts from a pile of clothes on the bathroom floor and plunged her hand into a pocket searching for bus passes. A cockroach skittered up her arm. Lily knocked it to the floor and it crunched beneath the heel of her sandal. She shuddered. Holding the shorts at arm’s length, she shook them to dislodge any other uninvited guests and then shoved her hand into another pocket.
A sense of freedom swept through Lily when she realized she was in the room alone. She leaned against the door, savoring the rare moment of solitude from her little brother’s constant presence. Light poured through the bathroom window and glinted off something blue lying on the counter. Wil’s talisman. Lily’s heart skipped a beat. What was it doing here?
The shorts crumpled to the floor, bus passes forgotten. Despite the hundred-degree weather in Austin a chill coursed down her back. She did an abrupt about-face and darted for the apartment door.,/p>
“Wil!” Lily’s shriek shook the air as she flew down the stairs outside their apartment. He lay on the sidewalk in a pool of blood with his arm wrenched behind him in a strange, unnatural way. Lily crouched next to him and checked his breathing. Assured that he was alive she moved his arm out from under his body, surveying the damage. The blood spread from a gash above his ear.
“Hey buddy,” she whispered to his small, limp body. “What happened?” A tiny fissure of guilt flared for being so happy a moment ago that her brother wasn’t around. She knew the accident wasn’t her fault but maybe she could have stopped it if she’d been more diligent.
Eliza came out of the apartment. “No… not again,” she sighed.
Lily carefully slid her arms around Wil’s small frame until she had him cradled in her lap. Brushing his dark hair back, she scrutinized the cut above his ear. Blood freely dripped down her hand.
“I called your EMS friend,” announced Mr. Edgar, an elderly man who lived downstairs. “I didn’t even have to look for his number.”
He tapped the side of his head. “Got it memorized.”
Lily sent Mr. Edgar a quick smile. His cooperation was one of the few reasons Child Protective Services weren’t pounding on their door every day but she wished he wouldn’t call her ‘EMS friend’ before they knew if Wil really needed help. She looked at the puddle of blood again and decided it was pretty obvious Wil needed help.
“I’m right here. It’s gonna be okay,” Lily soothed. Her fingertips gently ran over the dark purple bulge on his arm that was already swelling and a gash where the stairs had taken a bite out of his shin.
Wil blinked and opened his eyes. “It hurts,” he whimpered before his eyes fluttered closed again.
“It’ll be okay in a minute, buddy.” Lily shifted him out of the sun. She carefully lifted one of his eyelids and then the other. His eyes were a pale blue. She frowned. “Did you fall?”
Wil weakly shook his head. “I saw a man this time but the wind pushed me.”
Eliza squatted next to them with her hands firmly tucked under her chin. “There isn’t any wind today, Wil.”
Sirens wailed down the street.
“There was, Mom.” Wil leaned towards her.
“Don’t start that story with me again.” Eliza leaned away, not bothering to hide her revulsion. “‘The wind pushed me.’ ‘The wind tripped me.’ ‘The wind dropped the plate.’ ‘The wind threw the rock.’ It’s always the wind, isn’t it?”
Lily protectively drew Wil closer, but knew better than to say anything to her mom. Sirens and flashing lights announced the arrival of the paramedics.
“Hi Cortez,” Eliza said dryly to the first paramedic to get to Wil. He flashed her a brilliant grin.
Cortez’s sturdy, muscled body stretched the limits of his uniform. He knelt down next to Lily, his arm brushing hers.
“Who’s your partner this time?” Eliza asked like this was a social visit she had to endure.
“May I present Henry Middleton,” Cortez said with a flourish and reached to examine the cut on Wil’s head. Wil twisted into Lily.
“It’s okay,” Lily coaxed. “It’s Cortez; here to help.”
“No… you help me,” Wil said with a feeble whisper into her shirt then allowed Cortez to turn his head and cover the cut with a wad of gauze.
“Ahh, Wil. You’re not still afraid of me,” Cortez said, shining a small black pen light in Wil’s eyes. “I thought we were friends. We should go to the movies sometime. You like popcorn, don’t you?” Cortez glanced from Wil to Lily with a smile. “Do you like popcorn, Lily?”
Lily ignored him, but didn’t bother to scoot farther away.
“How long ago did this happen?” Henry asked.
“Only a few minutes,” Lily said. “I found him here just a few minutes ago.” She tried to avoid Cortez’s gaze. She had known Cortez for years. He was the biggest reason CPS hadn’t taken Wil; somehow Cortez showed up at all the right moments. Lily tried not to think about how he managed to keep such close tabs on them because it verged on creepy. Besides, she couldn’t really complain when Cortez appeared out of nowhere because most of the time, she really did need his help. He was also the closest thing she had to a friend, since he was the one person, outside her family, that she talked to on a regular basis, even if most of the time the circumstances that brought them together were less than great.
“Could he have been here for a while?” The new guy, Henry, worked his fingers down Wil’s arm checking for other injuries.
“No, he walked out the door only about a minute before me.”
Henry frowned. “His injuries aren’t fresh. It looks like it happened several hours ago.” He shot a look at Eliza. “How about you tell us what really happened?”
“What really happened?” Lily’s head snapped up before her mother could say anything. “I found him at the bottom of the stairs about nine minutes ago lying in a pool of fresh blood.” She motioned at the crimson pool by her. “Ten minutes ago, I saw him putting his shoes on by the door when I walked into the other room to grab our bus passes.”
“Anything else?” Henry said.
“Yeah, I forgot to mention…”—Lily pretended to be thinking—“somewhere between when I saw him putting his shoes on and when I found him at the bottom of the stairs, I smashed a roach. I’m sure the remains are still on the bottom of my sandal if you need evidence.”
Cortez hid a smile but not before Lily saw it. The corners of her mouth twitched and she rolled her eyes.
“Lily,” Eliza scolded, “don’t be rude.”
“Don’t worry about it Henry,” Cortez said.
“Wil’s super resilient. He heals faster than any kid I know; must be a high metabolism. It’s a good thing too, ‘cause he’s more accident prone than any other kid I know.” Cortez tweaked Wil’s cheek.
Henry frowned but didn’t say anything else.
Smiling broadly, Cortez put his hand on Lily’s shoulder. “That is an awful lot of blood. We should take Wil in. Get him a few stitches and make sure he’s a-okay.”
Lily shrugged Cortez’s hand off. He was probably right. Wil shouldn’t even be conscious with the amount of blood on the sidewalk and bump he had on his head. Lily knew even she could only do so much.
“We can’t pay for another trip to the emergency room,” Eliza said. “He looks okay to me. Everyone knows head wounds bleed a lot. It probably looks worse than it really is.” She looked at Lily. “Is he okay or not?”
Wil’s head had almost stopped bleeding, and the swollen bulge on his leg had shrunk to a red bump. Lily started to check Wil’s eyes again, then Cortez leaned over and she let him do it.
“He’s going to be fine,” Cortez said. “No need to take him in for tests you can’t pay for.”
“You have to advise them to take him in,” Henry said.
Cortez’s eyes flashed at Henry. “Go wait in the truck.”
Henry blinked several times, stood and walked back to the ambulance without another word.
“He needs a good lunch and if you have juice that’d be good too,” Cortez said rechecking and binding Wil’s head wound. “Have him take it easy and bring him in if you think there’s a problem.” Cortez turned his gaze from Wil to Lily and his eyes narrowed in concern. “Are you feeling okay? You look like you’re going to pass out. Let me check your blood pressure.”
“No.” Lily held her hand up. “I’m fine. I just need a break.”
Cortez’s eyes fixed on the palm of her hand. In a swift movement, his hand captured hers; with a feather-light touch he traced the birthmark on her palm. “A ring of fire,” he whispered.
She tried to pull her hand back but he was too strong. He held firm; so she curled her hand into a fist to hide the birthmark from his probing eyes and fingertips. Their eyes locked and with an interrogating gaze, Cortez slowly released her.
“Thanks for the help,” Lily abruptly stood with Wil wrapped around her and said what she always said when Cortez left, “Nothing personal, of course, but I hope I never see you again.”
“Pack your things,” Eliza said, the next day from the doorway of the apartment’s one bedroom.
“We’re moving again? What’s wrong?” Lily slapped her book closed and followed her mother’s retreating figure from the bedroom. Her mom sat down in the middle of the couch. “Mom?” Lily said fingering the book she was still holding. “What happened? Where are we going?”
Eliza’s head silently sagged into her hands.
“Mom, it’s okay,” Lily said. “Wil’s fall wasn’t that bad and hardly anyone saw.” Her mom didn’t respond and dread crept into Lily’s stomach. “Mom, why are we leaving?”
“Not we,” Eliza said without looking up, “just you two. Grandma Baxter will be here soon to pick up you and Wil.”
“You’re sending us away?” Lily dropped the book she was holding. It thudded to the floor. “We need to stay together. It’s not safe—”
“Stop it!” Eliza shot to her feet, spinning towards Lily, then she swallowed hard and continued in calmer voice, “Do what I say.” She sank back into the couch. “Please, just do what I say.”
Lily stood in stunned silence. Her only memory involving her maternal grandmother was of staying at a playground with her dad while her mom went to Grandma Baxter’s to get Jenny, her porcelain doll.
“Wil and I aren’t going anywhere,” Lily said. “It’s not like you look after us or anything. I could get a job.”
Eliza laughed. “No you can’t. No one’s going to let you bring your little brother to work and you won’t leave him. You can barely go to school because it separates you. But this isn’t about money.”
“Then what’s it about?!” Lily’s voice screeched.
Eliza scowled and looked away. “It’s better if you don’t know.”
Lily squinted at her mom. “Are you being for real? It’s better if I don’t know? That’s the most lame thing I’ve ever heard. You expect me to pack up and go live with someone I’ve never met and honestly thought was dead and it’s better if I don’t know why.”
“You met her twice when you were a baby.”
Lily rolled her eyes. “I’m not going.” She picked up the book that she’d dropped.
“I’m going,” Wil said.
Lily spun around and stared at Wil standing at the bedroom door. “No, you aren’t. Neither of us are. Just give me and mom a minute to work this out.”
Wil silently walked over, took Lily’s hand and patted it. “This is good. Gooby told me.”
Lily stared into Wil’s solemn blue eyes. “Oh crap,” she said shaking her hand free. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
He tilted his head to the side, steadily looking at her. Light glinted off his blue eyes and they glowed brighter. “It’ll be okay.” He turned back towards the bedroom. “I’m going to pack.”
“Hold up. We’re not going.” She glanced back.
Eliza turned away and walked to the window. “Grandma Baxter will be here in less than an hour.”
Lily hurried into the bedroom after Wil, her words tumbled out in a desperate panic. “Don’t I get a say in this? You can’t go. I only have two years of high school left. I don’t want to move and what about… um, the library. You like the library and we just renewed our bus passes and…” She flipped her head around looking for other reasons to stay.
Wil smiled at her, silencing her mania. “This is good. Gooby told me.”
Lily felt tears threatening and blinked hard to clear them. “What if you’re wrong?” Wil didn’t say anything and after a moment she let out a long breath. “You’re never wrong, are you?”
“Sometimes, but Gooby never is.”
Wil reached out towards Lily and she sighed, wrapping him in a hug.
It was understandable that Wil wanted to try something different. Their mom was cold and distant. The schools were full of bullies. The Shadows were getting worse. He hated the cockroaches. She hated the roaches, too, for that matter. “Okay,” Lily sighed again. “But only ‘cause I love you.”
Wil sniffled. “You’ll go with me?”
“Did you think I’d let you go alone, buddy?” She wiped a tear from his cheek.
“I love you,” Wil said squeezing her tight.
Forty-five minutes later a knock at the door signaled the arrival of Grandma Baxter. She was a solid block, without wrists or ankles and her face fell in folds to her shoulders. Her gray hair, flecked throughout with a hint of the brown it had once been, bunched up in curly tufts.
She didn’t exchange pleasantries or even say hello. Eliza didn’t make introductions. They all just stood facing each other across the threshold in an uncomfortable grimness.
“You were right,” Eliza said to the older woman and studied the floor.
Grandma Baxter smiled with satisfaction. “He’s been dead four years and his trouble’s still followin’ you. What you saw in him, I’ll never know.”
“He loved me,” Eliza whispered.
“He loved me,” Grandma Baxter mocked her daughter. “Bet that pays the bills real good now that he’s gone. I told ya he was cursed but did ya listen to me? No, you just counted down the days ‘til you were eighteen so you could run off and get married.”
“We didn’t run off. You wouldn’t come to the wedding.”
“Going before a judge isn’t a wedding. And why should I watch my only child run off with a no-account like him. He was trouble and too old to be hanging around with a baby like you.” No hint of forgiveness or understanding touched Grandma Baxter’s tough leathery expression.
“I wasn’t a baby. I was almost eighteen and he was only five years older than me.”
Eliza’s expression iced over. “Thanks for taking them.” She quickly hugged Lily, patted Wil on his head and ushered them out.
The clink of latches being fastened reverberated in Lily and Wil’s ears as they wordlessly followed their grandma down the stairs.
“Ya’ll get a move on it,” Grandma Baxter cut into the silence. “Drop your bags in the trunk and don’t be dilly dallying around.” She waddled to the curb where an old brown Buick sat idling, wrenched open the door and dropped like a mass of wet clay into the driver’s seat.
Lily carried one dilapidated suitcase in her left hand and another under her arm to keep its broken lock from springing open and dumping their meager possessions all over the ground. Wil stayed two steps behind Lily with his backpack behind him. Lily popped open the trunk and threw in one suitcase, then carefully laid the other on top. She reached for Wil’s backpack.
“Gooby doesn’t wanna ride in the trunk,” he said hugging the backpack to his chest.
She shrugged and slammed the trunk. “We should get in.” She didn’t move toward the car door. Wil remained, shadowing her. “I can’t do this, Wil. We could stay here. Mom can’t make us leave… I mean she probably won’t make us leave if—”
“I have to go.”
“Quit being melodramatic about this. You don’t have to go.”
“Gooby says I’ll die soon if I don’t go.”
Lily drew in a long slow breath and bit her tongue. She hated how he’d made his rock into an imaginary friend but she especially hated when he used it to get his way. She strained a smile and headed for her side of the car.
Wil’s scrawny arms strained with the weight of the car door on the other side. Before climbing in, he bent over, unzipped his backpack and whispered to the cereal bowl-size rock inside. “I hope it’s not too dark and scary in there, Gooby. I don’t think you should come out until we get to Grandma Baxter’s.” He carefully situated his backpack on the back seat, fished a toy car from his pocket, and clambered into the car.
They rode for several hours in silence with the windows rolled down, like moving the heat around would make it less hot. The sun beat down with grueling determination and Lily had a hard time keeping her eyes open.
Wil didn’t seem bothered by the sultry weather or lack of seat belts and he knelt on the bench with his arm out the window swimming his hand like a fish through the air sweeping past. Lily thought it was refreshingly normal behavior for a six-year-old and that was the only thing that stopped her from making him sit down correctly.
After what seemed like an eternity of driving, Grandma Baxter pulled into a rest stop as the sun was beginning to color the sky.
“Five minutes,” she barked.
Wil had been squirming for close to an hour. Lily grabbed his hand and made her way to the building marked, “Restrooms.” She ignored the stares as she hurried Wil into the ladies room and ducked into the handicapped stall, locking the door behind them.
“You go first,” she said pointing to the toilet and turning her back.
“You know it’s going to be a hick town,” she quietly said over her shoulder. “Who’s ever heard of Hypha, Oklahoma? It probably isn’t even on the map. What about… well, what if they think we’re weird? They notice things in small towns.” She scratched at the peeling aqua paint on the door.
“We’ll hide in plain sight,” Wil said. “People don’t see what they don’t understand.”
She focused on the palm of her right hand. “Cortez saw this.” The circular birthmark with wavy tendrils creeping out around it did look like a ring of fire. She shivered.
“And mom sent us away because they know,” he said. A flushing sound was followed by a light tap on her arm. “Done, your turn.”
Lily tousled his hair, “I’m good, let’s go.”
As soon as they could see the car, Grandma Baxter leaned out her window and hollered, “Hey, I’m not missin’ Jeopardy so ya’ll can drag your feet.” With a sigh, Lily and Wil climbed into the dusty backseat.
It was past eleven when Grandma Baxter drove into Hypha. Lily inspected every block they went down with the vigilance of a surveillance officer but she didn’t feel any threat. She did it mostly out of habit. A few short blocks off the main road Grandma Baxter pulled the Buick under a rusted carport. Lily slung Wil’s backpack over her shoulder and hoisted the sleeping boy into her arms before following Grandma Baxter into the house.
“Put that child down,” Grandma Baxter said. “He’s plenty old enough to walk. I’m not having any babies around here.”
Lily frowned but shook Wil anyway. “Wil buddy, we’re here.”
He yawned. The effort of opening his eyes was like pulling a shoe off a fresh wad of gum. She set him down and half guided, half carried him into the house.
“This’s your room. His’s over there.” Grandma Baxter pointed in one room and then another across the hall. Lily followed her into what was to be her room. The only furniture in the room was a twin bed pushed against a grubby white wall and a sagging couch the color of canned peas. “I don’t have many rules,” Grandma Baxter said. “Don’t interrupt me while I’m watchin’ my shows, clean up after yourselves, and stay out of trouble.”
Lily smiled and helped Wil lie down on the couch.
“I registered ya’ll for school and picked up some cold cereal so you oughta be set. If you get hungry, feed yourself; I’m not fixin’ any meals. I head to town every other week for groceries. Don’t eat all the food the first day or you’ll be eatin’ thirty-year-old canned beets and hominy. And don’t come askin’ me for money.”
Lily’s smile became strained.
Grandma Baxter started from the room and added, “And you ain’t usin’ my car, so don’t ask that neither.”
When she was gone Lily sank onto her bed exhausted. She closed her eyes, welcoming the blissful oblivion of sleep.
An awareness crawled over her sending goose bumps across her flesh. Someone was outside. She opened her eyes and sat up, looking towards the window. Faded Raggedy Ann curtains limply hung in front of the window. She got up and moved towards them. Her hand reached out to push the curtains back. Something outside exploded.
Lily huddled on the floor by the window at Grandma Baxter’s. She waited for the terrible wind and shaking that accompanied her father’s death. She remembered how the firemen pulled the bodies of her grandparents from the wreckage and laid them in white shrouds on the front lawn.
“He’s still alive!” her mom had screamed, her head bandaged and arm in a sling. “You have to find him!” She grabbed the fire chief and tried to shake him, but his heavy firefighters’ coat absorbed the jarring.
“We’ve been through the debris twice, ma’am,” the fire chief said. “My men have searched the surrounding area, and we’ve turned up nothing.”
Lily hadn’t told her mom she was wrong, but Lily knew her dad was dead before she’d even looked out the window and seen the shed destroyed. She felt him die, like a piece of her heart being torn from its rightful place. She hadn’t even realized she could feel his presence until it was suddenly gone. She half expected she would fall dead, too, but somehow, despite the missing piece, her heart kept beating.
The fear and desolation from that day crowded Lily’s mind as she sat dazed by the window. She got on her knees and peered over Grandma Baxter’s window sill into the night. She wasn’t sure what she expected – maybe a demon or Shadows. Certainly not another bang and a shower of sparks blossoming from the sky.
A small group of teens bunched together at the street corner in the yellow light of the street lamp. A small flame appeared in one of their hands followed shortly by a series of pops and laughter.
“Fireworks,” Lily said, trying to slow her heart down. “I hate this place already.”
Lily watched a girl who looked about her age. She was built like a gymnast, and her straight blonde hair was pulled back in a long pony tail. She must have seen movement in the window because she looked right at Lily, smiled, and waved.
Lily gave an awkward hand flap and let the curtain fall back over the window. She felt wistful and wondered what it would be like: nothing better to do on a warm summer night than hang out with friends and shoot off fireworks.
Lily glanced at Wil as another report sounded. He turned over, but slept on. She pulled the extra blanket from her bed, slipped Wil’s shoes off, and covered him up. He smiled in his sleep, and Lily watched his soft breathing. She hoped Wil was right, that coming to Hypha was going to be a good thing. If she could keep Wil safe, it would be a good thing. Her head sagged and she sighed. There was no such thing as a safe place for Wil.
“Aren’t you bored?” Lily asked Wil the next day. They’d spent most of the morning penned up in Lily’s bedroom. Grandma Baxter was watching TV in the shadowy front room and ‘was NOT to be disturbed!’
“Gooby’s telling me a story.” Wil sprawled on the red shag carpet in Lily’s room, making patterns in it with his car.
Lily frowned at him. “You know, normal six-year-olds don’t do nothing for hours.” She squatted down beside him. “And they most certainly don’t have rocks who tell them stories. You want to go for a walk?”
He smiled at his sister. “Yep,” he said hopping up. He walked over to his rock sitting on a wooden crate they’d found in the backyard and shoved next to Lily’s bed for a nightstand. “Night Shades don’t look like little children,” Wil said to the rock; then a shocked look crossed his face. “Oh.”
Lily rolled her eyes. Every story Wil pretended Gooby told was about how a talisman would keep you safe. She waited for Wil to say something along those lines.
Wil held the rock up level with his eyes and said, “11 or 12 isn’t little. You tricked me.” He scrunched his eyebrows together, thinking hard. “What isn’t true? Hmm….” His face lit up. “A Night Shade would die if it touched someone with a talisman.” He seemed to listen for a second and then triumphantly smiled and put the rock back on the nightstand.
She smiled weakly that she’d been right and reminded herself that talking to a rock was one of Wil’s coping methods. “I think the school’s close. We could walk to the playground.”
Wil pocketed his car, put his shoes on, and waved to the rock. “Bye, Gooby.” He reached up, tapping his talisman through his shirt. Then he gave a thumbs up with a very solemn nod to Lily. “Good to go,” he said.
They wound their way through the hallway and the living room towards the front door. Grandma Baxter was still planted in front of the TV.
Lily stopped to tell her where they were going, then thought better of it and started again, only to stop a second later. “Grandma Baxter, we’re going for a walk to the elementary school.” It felt weird to report where she was going because she hadn’t had to in Austin.
“You’re interrupting Judge Judy!” Grandma Baxter’s response was harsh and grating.
“Oh… I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to—”
“You have a key,” Grandma Baxter said without looking at her. “Just remember I’m not driving you nowhere, and I ain’t comin’ to getcha.”
The elementary school was only a block down, across the street. Wil galloped ahead on the sidewalk, then turned and trotted back towards Lily. His dark molasses hair bounced, and his face shone with happiness. He laughed as if galloping up and down the sidewalk was the very purpose of life and he’d finally found it. Lily couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard Wil laugh, and it made her oddly nervous.
At the playground, Wil left Lily’s side and joined a group of children playing pirates on the jungle gym. It was so unusual that Lily had to force herself to keep her distance. She felt like she was missing an arm or leg and found it hard not to follow him around. Every time he disappeared behind the slide or rock-climbing wall her stomach clenched. It was ironic that after years of wishing he would give her more space she was the one feeling lonely.
Lily jumped and wrenched around.
“Hi, I’m Natalie.”
Lily recognized her as the girl from the night before. Lily forced her mouth into a weak smile and then unclenched her fists, giving an awkward, constrained wave. “You startled me.”
“Yeah, you never know who might be lurking around here.” Natalie nervously chuckled. “Are you Lily Moiré?”
“Yeesss.” Lily drew the word out, her intonation questioning why Natalie knew her name.
“I’m Natalie Jagger.”
“You already said that.”
“Yeah… um, my mom works in the office at the high school. She told me we had a new student. It’s big news in Hypha when we get a new student. I assumed it was you since I don’t know you.”
“Oh.” Lily stood there feeling awkward and willing herself to act friendly.
“I’m going to be a junior this year, too,” Natalie continued. “We have English, science and gym together. In a town this small, you have a few classes with everyone. I live about three blocks that way.” She pointed past the high school, which shared a property line with the elementary school. “You live with Mrs. Baxter, right?”
Lily nodded; that seemed like a safe, friendly response. Then she realized it had been more than a minute since she’d last seen Wil. She turned and Wil ran full speed towards her. Panic gripped her until she saw the grin on his face and the other children running with him.
A girl slightly older than Wil slid to a stop next to Natalie, grabbing hold of her. “Natalie’s base!” she hollered at the boys running after her.
Wil copied the girl, grabbing hold of Lily. “Lily’s base,” he said in a more subdued voice, smiling in delight.
“Time for lunch, Gretchen,” Natalie told the girl, which was met with a long groan. “You can play at the picnic.” Natalie turned to Lily. “Are you coming to the town picnic tonight?”
Lily hesitated. “Probably not.”
“It’d be great to have you there, and your brother, of course.” Natalie gestured at Wil. “It might be better to get the ‘everyone’s-staring-at-you’ stage over at the picnic than on the first day of school.” She smiled. “You know, wear off some of the novelty.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“The picnic’s out by The Gorge.” She pointed vaguely north. “There’ll be a bonfire and food—hot dogs, chips, and soda—and there’s always a killer dessert table.” She paused, then added in a dreamy way, “And of course marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate.” Natalie raised her eyes and shoulders heavenward like the thought was giving her a hug.
Wil turned pleading eyes on Lily. “Can we?”
Lily was caught off guard. Wil never asked to go anywhere. “Sure,” was her knee jerk response. Then her mind went into a tailspin trying to undo what she’d just said. She wanted to be friendly but she didn’t know anything about this girl. “Oh, wait, we don’t have a ride. Maybe another—”
“No problem!” Natalie enthusiastically smiled. “You’re on our way. We’ll pick you up at four.”
“That guy with red hair is Derek Hollister, and the other one that needs a haircut is Eli Vanguard.” Natalie pointed to a couple guys spitting sunflower seeds into the beginnings of a bonfire.
“Eli’s not too bad, but Derek’s so annoying,” Natalie said. “He’ll ask you out—Derek asks everyone out—so consider yourself warned. He lives next door to me, and I can tell you first hand he’s totally full of himself. The only time I ever ran away from home was to get away from living next to him.”
Lily nodded, only half listening. Not having Wil attached to her side in a crowd of people was worse than at the playground. Wil stood by himself almost twenty feet away watching people with puppy-like curiosity. He intensely focused on a single person for a minute until someone more interesting caught his eye, then he’d hone in on them.
Natalie pulled Lily in another direction. “That’s our English teacher, Mr. Stryker, and his wife.” Mr. Stryker’s arms were loaded with pans of food, and Mrs. Stryker was rearranging things on a table to make room for her peach and cherry cobblers. The sun flashed off Mr. Stryker’s bald head, giving it the appearance of a shiny, pink balloon flocked with short prickly brown hair. He laughed at something his wife said as one of his daughters leaned against his arm giving him a squeeze.
“The Stryker’s have four kids,” Natalie said. “Jace, Jerika, Jentry and Jaxton. I guess they like J names. He’s a bear of a teacher but pretty nice when he’s not in the classroom.”
“Can you”—Lily held up one finger—“hang on just a minute? I want to check on Wil.”
Natalie followed Lily’s gaze to Wil. “Oh sure. I’m going to be over at the picnic tables.”
Trance-like in his evaluation, Wil didn’t respond to Lily’s approach.
“Is everything okay?” she whispered to him.
“Shhh,” Wil shushed without moving. After another fifteen seconds he turned to Lily. “What?”
“Nothing.” He tilted his head to the side. The sun reflected in his eyes, and they shone a heart-stopping cobalt blue.
Lily blinked and shifted her gaze. “Then why the strange staring?”
“Some of these people are good.”
She rolled her eyes. “I should hope so. I’m guessing most of them are good.”
“Oh.” Wil seemed to want to say something else, then thought better of it. “Will you be okay by yourself?”
“I’m going to play with Luke.”
Wil pointed to a towhead-blonde boy with eyes that screamed mischief, shinnying up a pole on the swings.
“How do you know his name’s Luke?” Lily asked, watching the boy monkey hand-over-hand along the top of the swing set.
“Luke! Get down before you break your neck,” rose a voice out of a group of ladies.
“That’s how,” Wil said, striding in Luke’s direction.
“Lily, you have to meet Aubrey Corona.” Natalie strolled up arm in arm with a girl wearing jeans, boots, and a tight cotton tee with a fitted western-style shirt over the top. It was buttoned twice in the middle, accentuating her feminine curves. Even if western wasn’t on New York’s current fashion hot-list, she wore it like Vogue took trend advice from her.
“Aubrey’s a blast and I never would have made it through Spanish without her,” Natalie said and then added, “This is Lily.”
Aubrey tossed her long fawn colored curls over her shoulder and held out a perfectly manicured hand with baby pink nails. Lily took Aubrey’s hand and Aubrey shook it with gusto, her turquoise bracelets rattling happily on her wrist.
“Is that your brother?” Aubrey said, gesturing towards Wil. Lily nodded.
Wil and Luke stood facing each other, foreheads together, eyes closed. You could hear faint counting, punctuated by a “Ready or not here I come!” shouted in unison as the two boys took off together.
“That’s my little brother, Luke,” Aubrey said. “He’s starting first grade.”
“His name’s Wil?” Aubrey said. “Short for William?”
“No, Wilard,” Lily said, and Aubrey drew in a sharp breath.
“Aubrey,” Natalie plowed into the silence. “I forgot to ask you, did you get the job at Mac’s Bowling?”
“Yes.” Aubrey’s face relaxed. “I get to work three nights a week and some on the weekend.”
Lily watched Aubrey wondering if she’d imagined Aubrey’s anxiety over Wil’s name just now?
“I’m so excited,” Aubrey continued, animating every word. “My mom said she’ll help me get a car so I can drive myself home from work. She doesn’t want me walking after dark. And for the record, Zach didn’t get me the job. I made sure he wasn’t even in town when I applied.” Aubrey paused and regarded Lily. “Too bad he’s not here. He’d want to meet you.”
“Aubrey!” shouted a voice over by the bonfire.
“Hey, I gotta run. See you around.” Aubrey gave a big smile and then sauntered off.
“Zach’s her big brother and he’s gorgeous,” Natalie said before Lily could ask. “But he doesn’t date seriously. He has more girlfriends in a week than most guys have in a lifetime.”
“Well, I don’t date either.” Lily surprised herself by chuckling. “There wasn’t anyone you’d want to date in Austin.”
Natalie’s face broke into a huge smile. “In that case, I don’t date either.”
Lily glanced past Natalie, and the laughter died in her throat. In one of the long shadows cast by the late afternoon sun, a darker shadow moved. A chill swept over her.
“You okay?” Natalie asked.
Lily watched the almost invisible entity move over a path and towards the trees. The only sign of its presence was the disturbance in the air, distorting the colors directly behind it. Then it disappeared into the woods.
Natalie touched Lily’s arm and pointed towards the trail leading into the forest of pine tree. “That trail leads to town. It’s only a few miles walk but most people will only walk it during the day.”
“Why?” Lily asked, and wondered if Natalie had felt the presence too.
Natalie shrugged and glanced at the setting sun. “Strange things happen in the woods at night. You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but I swear you can feel things watching. I’ve never seen anything, but it’s spooky for sure.”
The idea of evil presences reminded Lily that Wil wasn’t by her side. She swung around looking for him. Wil hung on the second rung of the monkey bars, his fingers gripped so tightly his knuckles were white. He screwed his face up with effort as his fingers slowly slipped.
“I can’t believe you fell on purpose,” Lily said. “You scared me half to death.” She watched Wil as he roasted a marshmallow.
“I didn’t fall,” Wil said, looking at Lily as his marshmallow stick dipped low. “Luke says it’s dropping, and he does it all the time without getting hurt.”
Lily leaned over and lifted his hand to keep the marshmallow from plunging into the coals. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for you to drop.”
Wil nodded. “Okay, I’ll ask Gooby about it.”
Lily forced a smile. Maybe dropping wasn’t such a bad thing. At least it was normal; Wil’s imaginary rock friend definitely bordered on the not normal side.
Lily took the marshmallow stick from Wil and helped him smash the top layer of graham cracker on his s’more. She caught the smell of campfire on his clothes and hair. The scent reminded her of her dad helping her make a s’more, and it made her a little sad to think of all the childhood memories that Wil never had. It’s no wonder he talked to a rock.
Wil took a bite; chocolate and marshmallow oozed out the sides onto his fingers and cheeks. “I did it wrong,” he said, spitting bits of graham cracker into the air.
“You’re doing perfect if you want another one.” Lily pushed his hair back from his eyes. “Dad told me if you don’t get any on yourself you can’t have s’more.” She wiped a smudge of chocolate from his cheek. “I better roast more marshmallows ‘cause it looks like you want another.” Wil grinned and attacked the s’more with gusto. Lily walked toward the refreshment table where there were open bags of marshmallows.
A shrill wail sliced the air and every head spun toward the fire. Wil lay sprawled in a smoldering bed of hot coals. Flames ignited, licking at his clothes and hair. An all-too-familiar adrenaline rush surged through Lily’s veins as she bolted forward.
“Hailey!” a voice shouted, and a younger, darker haired version of Aubrey shot from the crowd towards the fire. Before anyone could get to Wil, he slid from the flames as if an unseen hand had seized his ankle and yanked. His body tossed back and forth killing the fire on his clothes.
Lily reached Wil first and scooped the shrieking boy into her arms. Hailey pushed through the crowd and knelt next to Lily and Wil. Hailey frantically searched Wil’s body for a patch of skin that wasn’t blackened, blistered, and peeling. She finally grabbed onto Wil’s arm above the elbow where a small spot of pink flesh still showed.
Wil shuddered and his body went cold in Lily’s arms. Lily knocked Hailey’s hand off, and Wil instantly went from cold to blistering hot again. Hailey managed to clamp back on, and the biting cold returned.
“Get out of my way!” Lily said, pushing at Hailey.
“I’m helping,” Hailey said, and stubbornly held on.
“Why don’t you help by calling 911?” Lily said through gritted teeth, “or get me some water!” Wil started to shiver. Lily wished she was back in Austin where Cortez would show up any minute. It caught her as strange how disappointed she felt knowing he wouldn’t.
“It won’t do any good. The EMS doesn’t service this area,” Hailey said, still holding Wil’s arm. “But Mr. Egbert’s part of the Volunteer Fire Department. He’s pulling his truck over to drive him to the hospital.”
Wil’s teeth chattered. Lily frantically looked for some water and willed Mr. Egbert’s truck to get there faster.
“Lily,” Wil said.
Lily glanced at him. “Hold on buddy.” Then she looked at him more closely. Her fingertips brushed across his cheek. Flakes of white and black dropped off, exposing new pink skin. She paused and stared. Then she brushed some more burnt skin away. “You’re okay? You’re not burned?” She knew she helped him heal faster, although this had been worse than anything she’d yet seen. It had healed faster than normal, too.
“I’m c-c-cold.” Wil shivered, his lips purple. “Really cold.”
Lily took the corner of her shirt and wet it in the water cooler someone had just dropped next to her, then she wiped his face. Fresh pink skin lay beneath a layer of ash.
Hailey released Wil and scooted back. Wil’s shaking slowly began to subside.
Aubrey glanced from Wil to Lily then quickly stood. “He’s not burned,” Aubrey announced to the anxious crowd. “It must’ve been smeared marshmallow that blistered up. He’s going to be fine.”
Lily carried Wil to a nearby bench, thankful Aubrey was handling the crowd. That was always the worst part of Wil getting hurt. Aubrey certainly had a way with words. It was almost like she’d been trained for this. Lily cradled Wil close and rubbed his arms trying to warm him up.
Hailey stared at her sister, Aubrey, and then looked back at Wil. She shakily stepped back with her eyes glued to Wil as the crowd dispersed. A woman weaved through the few remaining people. Hailey stepped into her waiting embrace.
“Mom, did you see it? He was burned,” Hailey said, burying her face in the woman’s soft shoulder. “He was really burned.”
Mrs. Corona kissed the top of her head and held her close. “He was wearing more of his s’more than he was eating.” Then she spoke in a low voice, “And you were very fast; plus I think Jace must have pulled him out.”
Hailey nodded and then a satisfied smile grew on her face. “Yeah, I was fast,” she said, and looked at her mother with eager eyes. “I can’t wait to tell Zach.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial hush. “Not bad for my first full day as an Ice Dragon.”
“Shh,” Mrs. Corona shushed, glancing around furtively.
“We had this in the van,” a very tan teenage guy said. “Thought they might need it.”
Lily looked up to thank him, but he wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were focused completely on Natalie.
After a long moment, Natalie reached for the blanket. “Thanks, Jace.” She crouched down beside Lily and whispered, “Do you want to go home now? I’ll take you if you want.”
Lily nodded, taking the blanket Natalie held out to her. “Yeah. I think we’ve had enough excitement for one night.” She stripped off Wil’s charred shirt and wrapped the blanket around him. Big tears rolled down the rosy patches on Wil’s cheeks. “Hey buddy, what’s the matter? Does it hurt?”
Wil’s chin quivered. “I dropped my s’more. I don’t wanna go home. I wanna another.” He held up his pink hands. “But I don’t have any s’more on me. Can I still have another one, please?” His bottom lip stuck out.
“Oh,” Lily said. “Are you sure it doesn’t hurt?” She took his flushed hands in one of hers and with her other hand gently rubbed her thumb across his cheek.
“No, it feels like when that glue dried on me. Stiff.” Wil summoned his best doe eyes. “Can I have another, pul-leeease?”
“I’ll go roast the marshmallows,” Natalie volunteered, smiling.
Lily watched Natalie leave before leaning down to look Wil in the eyes. “What really happened?”
Wil poked at the tight skin on his arm. “I tripped.”
“Did… did the wind push you?”
He shook his head. “No, the wind pulled me out.”
“Pulled you out?”
Wil shrugged and held his hand out for a graham cracker.
Despite his insistence that he was fine, Wil fell asleep in Lily’s lap before he’d finished his s’more. The cool evening air made sitting by the fire pleasant, and Lily felt almost normal chatting with Natalie.
“Hey Natalie, Jerika said you were asking about me?” said a low resonant voice. The firelight cast a golden glow on Jace’s tan skin and dark eyes.
“Jace.” Natalie smoothed her hair back and talked in a rush. “I just noticed that you didn’t show up with the rest of your family and I only noticed that because Mrs. Egbert was asking about you, so I thought I should find out where you were, for her of course, because she made her peach cobbler special for you, although she said it had nothing to do with her finding out your mom was bringing her special peach cobbler too.” She took a breath and blushed. “Or so she says.”
A low rumble escaped Jace’s lips, and he smiled. “I was eight at the time. It was a simple mistake.”
Natalie looked at Lily. “He confused his mom’s cobbler with Mrs. Egbert’s.”
“I would’ve been in less trouble if I’d set off a nuclear bomb.”
They all chuckled.
Natalie fidgeted when no one spoke. “Oh, um, Lily, this’s Jace Stryker. He’ll be a senior this year.” She glanced from Lily to Jace. “It seems everyone knows who Lily is by now.”
Jace nodded a greeting toward Lily and then studied Wil sleeping in her lap. “Is he okay? I wasn’t sure I—I wasn’t sure he got out fast enough.” Jace reached up and tapped his left collar bone with his right hand like it was a nervous twitch.
“Yeah.” Lily brushed a wisp of singed hair behind Wil’s ear. “He seems fine. A few tender patches of skin, luckily no real burns.” Lily exhaled a tired breath. “Really just a typical day for Wil.”
A horn honked and Jace looked up.
“Shoot, I guess I gotta go.” Jace backed away, his eyes fastened on Natalie. “It was good to see you.” Then he looked at Lily. “Bye… uh, nice to meet you Lily. I’m glad Wil’s okay.” He glanced at Natalie once more before he turned and jogged out of the firelight.
The two girls sat in silence. Natalie hugged her knees to her chest, her cheeks aglow and eyes staring beyond the flames.
“What?” Natalie asked, sensing Lily’s gaze.
“He likes you,” Lily said. “I thought you said there wasn’t anyone to date.”
“There isn’t. And no, he doesn’t.” Natalie played with the cup holder on her lawn chair. “Besides he’d never date me anyway.”
“Why not? You’re pretty and nice. And yes, he definitely likes you.”
“It doesn’t matter, he would never date me. Jace is part of the group.”
“The group? Like a clique.”
“Yeah, a clique on steroids.”
“Are we going now?” Wil asked his sister Monday morning.
Lily smiled at him. “Don’t you know that you can’t start first grade without some new clothes?” She casually tossed a t-shirt at him. “You better put this on.”
His eyes sparkled as he fingered the glossy picture of a UFO and the word ZOOM in big bold letters across the bright red shirt. “It has tags.” He held it up to his face and inhaled. “It even smells new.” He yanked his old shirt off. “Thanks, I didn’t know I had to have new clothes. Do you think they would’ve sent me home?”
Lily rolled her eyes. “No silly, it’s not a real rule, just something that most people do.”
Proudly displaying his new shirt, Wil hurried Lily down the sidewalk to the front doors of the school. It wasn’t until they had crossed the threshold of the school that Wil’s demeanor changed. He still held Lily’s hand, but his grip got tighter and tighter as they neared his classroom. When they got to room 3A, Lily switched to her other hand because she had lost feeling in her fingers.
Lily scanned the classroom, memorizing the layout of desks, tables, cubbies, and supplies. The room had a faint animal smell due to a toad, a white mouse, a brown mouse, a hermit crab, two long-haired guinea pigs, and a fish tank.
“Hello, I’ll bet you’re Wil. I’m Mrs. Livingston,” said a plain looking lady in an out of date dress, leaning over to meet Wil’s gaze. “I’m so glad to have you in my class.”
Wil velcroed himself to Lily peeking around her leg at Mrs. Livingston.
“Oh,” Mrs. Livingston retreated a step, “where’d you get those blue eyes?”
Wil tipped his head to the side and studied his teacher. “I was born with them. Where’d you get your eyes?”
Mrs. Livingston laughed. “I guess I was born with mine, too.” She extended her hand to Lily. “Are you his sister?”
“Yes, Lily Moiré. We’re living with our grandma, Mrs. Baxter, but if you ever need something, you should talk to me.” Lily maintained eye contact. “I’m over at the high school, but if something happens, I expect to be contacted first.” She stepped closer. “Especially if he gets hurt.”
“I’m sure he’ll be—”
“If he gets anything worse than a paper cut, I want to be called immediately,” Lily said, louder than she intended, and Mrs. Livingston took a step backwards. Lily forced a smile onto her face and softened her voice. “He’s a bit accident prone.”
“Oh. Well,” Mrs. Livingston’s chuckle was tense, “I’m sure he’ll be fine, but I’ll try to keep an extra close eye on him.” She stepped back like she was afraid Lily might forcibly grab and shake her.
“And call if he gets hurt,” Lily insisted.
“Right. Call if he gets hurt,” Mrs. Livingston said, and stepped back once more. She looked at Wil and then flicked her eyes back to Lily as if to check to make sure she wasn’t going to attack her, then she bent down to Wil’s level. “You can look for your name tag above the cubbies and put your backpack there. Then find your name tag at a table.”
Mrs. Livingston immediately moved away from Lily, shifting her attention to a couple other students and parents but sending fleeting glances back towards her like she felt the need to keep tabs on where Lily was.
Lily urged Wil toward the wall of cubbies. “Come on, Wil buddy. Be brave. You were so excited this morning.” She gently pulled him forward. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
He tapped the talisman through his shirt and nodded.
In a flash of speed, Luke skid to a stop in front of Wil. Luke’s words flew out of his mouth in a single breath. “Are you in Mrs. Livingston’s class? I’m in Mrs. Livingston’s class too. There’re new swings on the playground, but I like to play tag. Do you like to play tag? Hey, cool shirt.”
Wil released Lily’s hand. “Did you see the toad on the table?”
“Toad, where?” Luke jerked his head in several directions, and the two boys ran off.
Lily took one more look around the room, making sure she knew all the exits, and quietly left.
Lily’s first class went by uneventfully, other than a couple things: the calculus teacher mangled her last name during roll call, and when he read the name ‘Zachary Corona’ she found herself searching the room for a face to go with the name. Lily was completely taken aback by how disappointed she was that he was absent.
Lily barely stepped into the hall after class when Natalie grabbed her and led her to English, which they had together. Every head in the room swung Lily’s direction when she entered the room.
“Don’t worry,” Natalie whispered. “It’ll only last a day or two before someone does something so stupid that they’ll steal the spotlight from you.”
“They can have it,” Lily said, keeping her eyes down as she followed Natalie to the far side of the room by the windows. Lily set her stuff down on a desk, and when she sat down, she noticed the teacher standing by the whiteboard staring at her, too. Lily met his eyes with a look of challenge. After a moment the teacher turned and finished writing his name on the whiteboard. Mr. Stryker. Lily leaned over to Natalie. “Mr. Stryker… that’s Jace’s dad, right?”
“Yes, one more reason not to bother with Jace. I want a passing grade.” Natalie grimaced. “I’m positive his dad wouldn’t approve of Jace dating me.”
The bell rang and Mr. Stryker began roll call. Lily breathed a sigh of relief when he pronounced her name correctly. The reprieve was short lived.
“Moiré, pronounced ‘maw-ray’, correct?” Mr. Stryker said, and Lily nodded. “That’s an interesting last name. Does anyone know what Moiré means?” Mr. Stryker paced while an uncomfortable silence hung in the air. The class stared at Lily as if that might magically help them figure out the answer. Mr. Stryker stopped in front of Lily’s desk. “Do you know what your last name means?”
At that moment, a guy arrived tardy and slid into an empty desk by the door. Lily watched as he leaned back and made himself comfortable. She mindlessly started to stand, but stopped and forced herself to sit back down. For a moment, she couldn’t figure out why she’d done that. Then her muscles tensed and she pushed away another wave of the impulse to get up. A hint of panic ran through her mind when she realized she was getting up because she wanted to touch him. Not only did that make no sense to Lily, she thought it was creepy.
His light hair was tousled and streaked with sun-bleached highlights. When he moved, his black t-shirt stretched across a muscular chest. His skin was perfectly tanned. The pull to touch him burned in Lily, and with it an eerie unrest settled on her, stirring a grave sense of distrust. He turned towards Lily, like he could feel her watching him, and cavalierly smiled, his blue eyes laughing at her for staring. Lily frowned and dropped her eyes.
Mr. Stryker’s scowled at him. “Zach, I was just asking about the meaning of Miss Lily Moiré’s last name. Maybe you would be able to enlighten us?”
Zach hadn’t looked away from Lily. He blinked and watched the sunlight from the window play on her brown hair making it shimmer. A burning sensation flickered deep in his chest, and he sucked in his breath. He willed her to look back at him so he could see her eyes again.
Lily tensed, shifted in her chair, and lifted her indignant brown eyes to his. Then she pointedly looked away.
“Let’s see, Moiré, hmmm…” Zach said, entirely distracted by her full lips and not able to concentrate enough for it to register that he didn’t have any idea what her name meant.
A set of dark and light bands, creating a wavelike or rippled pattern, usually on fabric. The idea softly buzzed in Zach’s mind. He shrugged; the thought was better than anything he could come up. He managed to drag his eyes from Lily as he repeated it. “A set of dark and light bands, creating a wavelike or rippled pattern, usually on fabric.”
Mr. Stryker raised his brows. “You’re full of surprises, aren’t you, Mr. Corona? We’ll overlook the tardy since it’s the first day. I trust it won’t happen again.”
“Of course, Mr. Stryker. I would never want to disrupt your class.” Zach smirked triumphantly, and roll call resumed.
Lily flipped her head up when Zach had answered. She’d answered that question about her last name at least a hundred times and developed a rote response. He phrased his answer exactly the way she did, right down to pausing for a breath between the same words. Zach twisted sideways in his chair, locking his gaze with hers, but she didn’t avert her eyes this time. After a moment they both shivered, but neither looked away.
Natalie jabbed Lily’s shoulder and she turned.
“What. Are. You. Doing?” Natalie whispered, emphasizing each word. Lily absently shook her head.
Mr. Stryker flipped a switch on a lotto machine, and with a roar similar to a vacuum, a hundred or more little white balls began to churn inside the glass box. One of the white balls was sucked up a tube and he picked it up. After quieting the roar, he announced, “Assimilate. Your vocabulary word for today is assimilate.” Mr. Stryker directed his comments in Lily’s general direction. “For those of you who don’t know, I choose a vocabulary word at the beginning of every class. If you can write down the definition or use it correctly in a sentence I will add ten points to your grade on that day’s assignment.”
Zach raised his hand.
“Yes, Mr. Corona,” Mr. Stryker said.
“I hope that Miss Moiré finds it easy to assimilate here,” Zach said, catching Lily’s eye again.
“What happened this morning in English?” Natalie grinned and raised her eyebrows. “You ever heard of playing hard to get?”
Lily followed Natalie to a lunch table and sat down next to her. “First of all, I don’t play anything. Second, you’re exaggerating.”
“Oh right. Guess who I am,” she said, bugging her eyes out at some distant point with a dreamy expression and slack jaw.
Lily grunted and concentrated on unfolding her napkin and placing it in her lap.
“Not that I blame you; he’s gorgeous.”
“He’s not that good looking.”
“Uh huh…. Did he blind you with his dazzling smile?” Natalie said dryly.
Lily rolled her eyes. “Although….”
“There is something about him.”
Natalie snickered and spoke under her breath. “Don’t look now but our friendly neighborhood hypnotist is walking this way.”
Lily pushed her hair behind her ear so she could watch him approach from the corner of her eye. The same need to touch him washed over her followed by a conflicting sense of deep foreboding and distrust.
“Ladies. Is this seat taken?” Without waiting for a response, Zach pulled out one of the molded plastic chairs on the other side of the long rectangular table, turned it around and straddled it. “Hi, Natalie.” He pivoted towards Lily. “I’m Zach Corona.”
Lily looked at him and then gripped the bottom of her chair to keep herself from reaching across the table to touch him.
“I hear you moved in with your grandmother, Mrs. Baxter.”
Lily barely nodded.
“From Austin, right?”
She looked away. “Sounds like you know more about me than I do.” She flicked a glance at him and hoped she sounded glib.
Zach smiled as if she’d answered his question perfectly. “Are you enjoying Hypha?”
“I suppose. Wil and I have met a few people.” Lily glanced at him again and caught him flinch as if she’d said something completely unexpected.
“Wil’s her little brother,” Natalie quickly added, and he gave a curt nod.
“I figured you would’ve known I have a little brother,” Lily said, studying his reaction. “Isn’t Luke your little brother?”
“Wil and Luke are both in Mrs. Livingston’s class. They get along really well.” Lily peeked at her lunch tray, and when she looked back, whatever had been bothering Zach was gone. “Maybe they get along too well. This morning when I dropped Wil off, I turned invisible as soon as Luke showed up.”
Zach leaned in, his attention entirely focused on Lily.
She squirmed under the intensity of his gaze but continued. “They met at the picnic on Saturday, but you’d think they’ve known each other forever.”
Jace slid into a seat next to Zach. “Natalie… Lily.”
Lily raised her eyebrows towards Natalie as if to say, ‘I told you he likes you.’ Natalie kicked her under the table.
“You’ve met Lily?” Zach asked, not sounding particularly pleased.
Jace nodded. “After you dropped me off, I went over to the bonfire for a little while.”
“Oh yeah, Hailey told me….” Zach shook his head. “I really am out of the loop.”
“You have to be kidding.” Lily picked up her fork and stirred the fruit cocktail on her tray. “If not meeting the new girl the first day she’s in town means you’re out of the loop, then I’m going to be hopelessly uninformed.”
“I think I mentioned something about being a novelty,” Natalie said.
“What’s next? Paparazzi?” Lily took a bite and snuck a peek at Zach’s playful grin.
“No, angel, we typically don’t go that far,” Zach said. “We only want to know when you got up this morning and what you ate for breakfast.”
“That’s all… no Social Security Number or blood type?” Lily said.
“That’s next week,” Natalie said, glancing at Zach, then back to Lily. “We wouldn’t want to come on too strong and scare you off.” She shifted her focus to Zach and Jace. “That reminds me, why did you two miss the picnic?”
“I was there,” Jace said.
“Only for a little at the end while everyone was cleaning up. You should’ve heard the rumors. If your families hadn’t been there to curb the tongue-waggers, who knows what’d be going around the gossip mill about you two. My personal favorite was that you were joyriding on Mr. Egbert’s tractor and tipping cows.”
“Small towns, baby.” Zach smiled. “You gotta love ’em. We weren’t doing anything nearly that interesting. It just took longer than normal to get things closed up at camp. We had a last-minute visit from a new kid.”
“A new kid would explain everything,” Lily said. “I’m guessing you grilled him for hours, hoping to make him feel welcome.”
“Why would someone new show up on the last day of camp?” Natalie said.
Zach leaned back. “He was checking it out so he can come next summer.”
“Zach and Jace are counselors at Camp Corona,” Natalie added for Lily’s benefit.
“Zach’s a counselor. I’m a Thunder–” Jace cut himself off, and his eyes widened.
“He’s an undercover counselor,” Zach said smoothly. “We let the campers think he’s one of them. Heads off all sorts of trouble that way.”
Natalie slowly nodded. “No one ever says much about your camp. What do you do there?”
“Not much,” Jace said, “but there are some real killer games of capture the flag. They can last all day and sometimes into the night.”
“That’s a pretty intense game,” Lily said. “Sounds more like a military war game.”
Something flickered in Zach’s eyes. “Speaking of flags, I thought they were going to straighten the flag pole in front of the school this summer. What happened with that? It was leaning just as bad if not worse when I saw it this morning.”
“You don’t have co-ed gym classes do you?” Lily frowned at the sight of both boys and girls taking seats on the pull-out bleachers.
“Not technically, but we might as well,” Natalie said, finding a seat about halfway up the bleachers. “We only have one gym, so we’ve always had to do some sharing of the gym. The sharing increased a ton last year when we got a new girls’ coach. Coach Mac likes her, and I doubt things’ll change anytime soon.”
Lily sat by Natalie, and a dark shiver spread across Lily’s skin. She looked around; Zach was headed up the bleachers towards them.
“Ladies.” Zach tipped an imaginary hat as he walked past, then did a slick about-face-step-up onto the next row of bleachers and sat directly behind the two girls.
“There goes the neighborhood,” Lily breathed. She leaned forward trying to control the urge to lean towards Zach and touch him.
Coach Mac started class with a spiel about rules and schedules and the importance of physical fitness which nobody really listened to. “Next week we’re going to start a unit on swimming, so everyone should make sure they have a swimsuit by then. This is plenty of warning, so there’ll be no excuses.” This got some response as several of the girls fretted about the one piece suit restrictions the school had.
Coach Mac droned on, “Now for the rest of the hour you can play Horse and shoot baskets while we make locker assignments.”
The gym smelled faintly of sweat. It had six basketball hoops, one at either end of the court and two more that folded down from the ceiling on each of the sides. As the hour went on, fewer and fewer people played ball and more and more took advantage of the lack of supervision to lounge on the bleachers in small groups. Bored with conversations about people she didn’t know, Lily grabbed a ball. She dribbled out and threw up a shot. It bricked off the rim. At least it had hit something.
Zach guffawed and threw her the rebound.
“Go ahead and laugh. You couldn’t make that shot either,” she blurted out even though she knew it wasn’t true from watching him play for the last half hour. She missed her next shot by a mile.
Zach deftly caught the ball and instead of tossing it back, dribbled out to her. “Here?”
Lily stood stoically by him and looked at the basket in defiant anticipation. She wasn’t sure if it was to keep him from making the basket or if she was giving in to her compulsion to touch Zach, but as he shot, she bumped against him. A surge of electricity shot up her arm. Startled, she drew away and rubbed at the tingling skin.
The ball bounced off the rim. “Hey baby, you didn’t say anything about guarding me.” Zach rubbed his arm.
Lily looked at him smugly. “You can only shoot if no one’s guarding you?”
“I didn’t say that. I just wasn’t expecting it.” Zach retrieved the ball and beckoned Lily by curling one finger. She folded her arms and shook her head no. “Come on, honey. You can’t issue a challenge like that and then back out.”
“I’m only thinking of your reputation, hon.”
“Oh, I see. Very considerate of you. And I thought you were just afraid to take me on.”
Lily rolled her eyes. “One shot.” She wanted to shake herself; she couldn’t believe she was doing this.
She positioned herself between him and the basket. The smell of spice and musk tickled her nose. She put her arms out defensively, trying not to notice the way his muscles moved as he dribbled the ball.
He faked left and broke right to roll off her shoulder when a flash of blue light arced between them, shooting a swell of electricity through their bodies where they touched.
Before she could control the impulse, Lily’s hand clamped onto his left forearm. He stopped in his tracks and still managed to catch the ball. She wanted to pull her hand away, but it seized with a flare of blue electricity, another spasm tingling through Lily.
Zach stared at his left hand, opening and closing it a couple times. “Hey, what…?” He apparently forgot what he was going to say when their eyes fastened together. He blinked and studied her, frankly, openly, and with heavy scrutiny; then his eyes engaged hers again with a smoldering intensity.
Lily’s lips parted but she couldn’t think of a thing to say. A tingle started where her hand held his arm and spread outwards through her body in warm waves. Her head swam, and she felt like she had to concentrate to keep her heart beating. She wasn’t sure how long they stood there like that, but finally her fingers slid from his arm.
Zach shook his head, breaking eye contact. Without warning, he faked right and went left. Lily recovered faster than she thought possible. Her mind and body reacted before she gave them conscious directions, anticipating his moves and blocking his shot.
“I’ve seen guys like you play.” She hoped her voice sounded stronger than it felt. “Your fancy moves don’t impress me.”
He gave her a lopsided grin. “Trash talk, sugar?”
Lily synchronized her steps to his, cutting off every move he tried. Again and again he feinted; again and again she blocked. “You’re gonna have to work harder than that,” she said, feeling confident.
Zach stepped back, dribbling absently. His serious eyes quizzed hers. “How are you doing that?”
“How do you know which way I’m going to go?”
“Just lucky, I guess,” she shrugged, even though his question bothered her.
Zach seemed to sense she was distracted by the question. He pivoted past her and went up. As if on cue, the bell rang as the ball went through the hoop. He smiled. “You can guard; too bad you can’t shoot.”
“I can’t shoot or guard because I can’t play basketball. It was a fluke.” Lily reached for her backpack. “But you were worried.”
“Nah, I didn’t want to win too quickly and make you feel bad.”
“Ha,” Lily snorted. “You were worried.”
“Oh please, baby.”
“My name’s Lily, not Sugar, Honey or Baby.”
Zach winked at her. “Whatever you say, angel.”
She flushed in spite of herself. “Later, weirdo.” Lily walked away, the troubling distress she felt at his presence dimming as she got farther away.
“Shut up, Eli. Nobody asked you,” Aubrey said a couple days later. She glared through Sarah, who sat between her and Eli at the lunch table.
Eli wore jeans and boots and had sinewy arms and shoulders. He gave a Cheshire cat grin. “Maybe if you did once in a while you wouldn’t be so stupid.”
Aubrey made a face and opened her mouth.
Sarah cut off the protest by putting her hand out and blocking Aubrey’s view. “I should’ve known better than to let you two get within fifty feet of each other.”
Aubrey scowled. “I’m not the problem here.” She turned back to her lunch tray.
Eli snorted. “Oh yeah, I’m the problem. You’re just the one without any fashion sense. The blues don’t even match.”
Aubrey flipped towards him again. “Colors don’t have to match exactly to match.” She wore a breezy blue top with a scoop neckline that showed off a short necklace in shades of chocolate, sapphire and maroon. Her bohemian style skirt was a myriad of other shades of blue with bits of brown and rust thrown in.
“Are you listening to yourself? That didn’t even make sense,” Eli said, leaning around Sarah.
“It makes perfect sense, to anyone with sense, numskull.” Aubrey sneered at Eli. “But what’s the use explaining addition to someone who doesn’t even know what a number is?”
“Who made you fashion queen?”
Sarah flipped around to face each in turn and then held her hand over Aubrey’s mouth.
“Seriously guys, do we have to go through this with every, stupid, little thing!”
Aubrey pushed Sarah’s hand out of her face, entirely ignoring the interruption. “For your information, bozo, I do not think of myself as a fashion queen. I wear what I like. I never asked your opinion because I don’t care what you think.”
Zach stood and picked up his tray. Immediately the table went silent.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Eli mumbled, staring at his food.
Aubrey smirked at Eli even though she knew she’d hear it later from Zach. Zach rounded the end of the table and halted between them. He motioned with one hand, and like the parting of the Red Sea, Sarah, Eli, and two others shuffled down a chair, opening a second seat between Aubrey and Eli.
Across the room, Lily nudged Natalie with her elbow. “What’s the deal with Zach? Does he run this school or what?”
Natalie chuckled without much humor. “He’d be shoo-in for Student Body President if he decided to run.”
“What makes him so special? I mean he’s cute, but he can’t be all that.”
“Who knows?” Natalie shrugged. “His group follows his every command, and everyone else just… well, they just don’t disagree with him.”
“His group? Is this the clique on steroids you mentioned?”
Natalie nodded. “There are a half dozen or so families in town that are really good friends,” Natalie said. Lily bent forward as Natalie’s voice dropped to a low whisper. “At first I thought they were all related, cousins or something. That’s what it seemed like to me when I was younger; then as I got older I realized they weren’t because their kids would date each other.” Natalie smirked at the grimace on Lily’s face. “They tend to be pretty exclusive. They date people from other places, but I swear even those people are from the same group somehow.” Natalie paused and looked at Lily, gauging her reaction.
“For instance, Jace has never sat by me like he did the first day of school, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have dared if Zach hadn’t already been sitting there, too. It’s like they have certain rules to follow, except Zach. He does whatever he wants, and everyone does what he tells them to. Nobody could’ve been more spoiled as a child. It’s not so strange anymore because he’s older, but believe me it was strange when we were in elementary school and he’d tell an adult to go home or something and they’d do it.
“My mom says I should mind my own business and stop seeing things that aren’t there, but everyone knows they’re involved in something. It’s just been part of our town so long now that no one seems to care anymore. Plus, Zach smoothes over anything that might stir up attention”—she nodded towards his table—“like he just did, so they keep a low profile.”
Lily stabbed her fork into her green beans. “He doesn’t seem… I don’t know, like he fared too bad… for being spoiled.” Lily smelled the green beans then scraped them back onto the tray.
“He used to get into trouble, lots of trouble. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that he changed. I think it had something to do with his brother.”
A small group of girls with nearly identical clothes and hair passed with whispered giggles by their table. Natalie’s neat stack of books went flying out from under her chair, papers fluttering everywhere. The girls erupted into gales of scornful laughter as they hurried away. Natalie bent down without a word and scooped up the papers and books.
Lily knelt down to help. “What was that all about?” she said, looking up at the girls’ retreating backsides.
“It’s nothing.” Natalie stuffed the last of the papers into the cover of her math book and sat back down.
Lily joined her and speared a chicken nugget on her lunch tray. “Right, I really believe that.”
Natalie shrugged. “It’s a long story.”
“Give me a condensed version.” Lily motioned to Natalie’s fork of green beans. “Those aren’t any good. Nothing too serious, but I’ll bet half the school’s going to be hugging their toilets tonight because of ’em.”
Natalie knocked the beans off her fork and held up a chicken nugget. “I’m assuming because you’re eating these, they’re okay?”
“Yeah, and taste good as a boot.” Lily giggled. “I mean tastes good to boot.”
“Mmmm,” Natalie hummed with delight, like she’d just bitten into a t-bone steak, and joined Lily’s laughter.
“So seriously… tell me what that was about.” Lily pointed to Natalie’s books.
Natalie shrugged. “My older brother Mason used to date Gloria’s sister Pam.” Natalie nodded toward the girl who had kicked the books. Gloria had wiry brown hair with just a hint of red that was accentuated by her orange shirt. “Anyway, Pam broke up with Mason just before prom last year. I think she wanted him to sit home and cry about it. He just asked someone else, and Pam ended up without a date to the prom. It’s made me a little unpopular in certain circles.”
“You just let her pick on you?”
Natalie shrugged. “Gloria’s not worth the effort. Actually, what really bugs me is the girls with her were my best friends.”
“I was sooo sick last night. For a couple hours every time I left the bathroom I’d have to head right back in again,” Aubrey said in the hall between first and second period. “At least I didn’t puke.”
“That’s like totally gross,” Emma Johnson said. Emma wasn’t quite sixteen and had brown hair, hazel eyes, and a cloud of heavy floral perfume hovering around her like Pig Pen in Charlie Brown. She also had a mistaken belief that talking like a Valley Girl was somehow a good thing. “Sarah was, like, barfing, and her mom made her totally stay home today.”
Natalie couldn’t help overhearing Aubrey and Emma’s conversation from the next locker. “Did you eat the green beans at lunch yesterday?” Natalie said.
Emma’s face went cold when Natalie spoke. “What does that have to do with, like, anything?” Emma’s features contorted into various shapes as she made disgusted faces.
“I ate the green beans; so did Sarah,” Aubrey said, ignoring Emma. “Do you think they were bad?”
Natalie shrugged and followed Aubrey down the hall, glancing back at a dramatically disgusted Emma. “Lily warned me off them.”
A loud thud sounded behind them, and books skidded across the floor, stopping at their feet.
“Seriously?” Lily huffed in exasperation, extracting herself from the floor. “Could you try to be a little more clumsy, you big oaf?”
“You walked right in front of me,” Zach said, bending to pick up one of Lily’s books.
Lily rolled her eyes. “Yeah right. You’d think after you blindsided me with the door in Calculus I’d have learned my lesson.”
“That wasn’t my fault,” Zach said, “and I only knocked the books out of your hands. I didn’t knock you over or anything.”
“So since you didn’t flatten me the first time, you had to try again?”
Zach raised his hands in defeat. “Okay, okay.” His expression turned from defeat to flirtatious. “If you’d stop following me around…”
“Don’t flatter yourself.” Lily flew into Zach’s face, “I wouldn’t follow you, even if I was water and you were downhill.” Zach’s mouth tightened, and without another word he turned and walked away.
Emma prodded Aubrey. “Did you hear that? Can she, like, do that?”
“I think she just did, and I’m likin’ that girl more every moment,” Aubrey said. “Zach could stand to be taken down a peg or two.”
“You’re, like, only saying that because he’s you’re brother.” Emma sighed. “He’s a total dream.” Her eyes followed him as he slumped down the corridor.
Aubrey snorted. “Emma, if you weren’t Tro…,” she stopped herself and glanced sideways at Lily and Natalie, “…trying… so hard to be cool, you might succeed. As it is you’re going to end up with ‘loser’ permanently imprinted on your forehead.” She turned and stalked down the hall followed by a gaping Emma.
Natalie handed Lily her calculus and English books. “What’s up with you and Zach?”
“Thanks.” Lily accepted her books and straightened her shirt. “Nothing’s up. He’s just everywhere. I can’t turn around without bumping into him or tripping over him.”
“If you gotta have a stalker…” Natalie grinned.
“Just do me a favor,” Lily said, “and warn me when he’s around so I can run the other direction.” She didn’t know why she said it because she knew when Zach came into the room. Even without looking she could tell if he was around because of the feelings pushing and pulling at her. Lily felt restless with distrust around him, like he’d double-cross her if she didn’t keep both eyes on him. She also felt drawn to touch Zach, although thankfully the feeling wasn’t as strong as it was to begin with, and there hadn’t been any more strange blue sparks.
Lily and Natalie continued down the hall to their next class.
“Aubrey and Sarah were both sick last night,” Natalie said as they walked into English. “And they both ate the green beans. Guess you were right.”
“Wil was throwing up when I picked him up from school yesterday. I found him and three other kids in the nurse’s office all looking green. I wish they would’ve called me right away like I’d asked.”
“How long had he been there?”
“About thirty minutes by the time I got there.” Lily stood in front of her desk. “Trade seats. Zach sits behind me.”
“Sure.” Natalie set her books on Lily’s desk. “Thirty minutes isn’t that long.”
“It is for Wil. He can make a situation go from bad to catastrophic in no time.” Lily smiled. “I think they’ll call me next time. He managed to throw up on his teacher, the nurse, the janitor, the principal, and the school’s new copy machine.”
Natalie laughed. “He’s okay now, right?”
“He’s fine. He didn’t throw up any more after I got there. I don’t think he had anything left.”
“So, did he go to school today?”
“Yeah.” Lily looked at her watch. “I think he’s at recess right now, probably trying to break his neck with his new best friend Luke.”
“Watch this.” Luke flipped upside down and hung by his knees from the monkey bars at the elementary school playground. His shirt slipped down around his armpits.
Wil cocked his head to the side. His eyes blazed deep blue. “I know someone who has a mark just like that.” Wil pointed to the shape of a bird with outstretched wings embossed on the left side of Luke’s stomach.
Luke swung back and forth. “So do I. I know lots of people with ’em.”
Wil reached up with his right index finger and absently tapped his talisman through his shirt. “My dad had one.”
Luke stopped swinging. “My whole family has one… except Sadie; she’s too little.”
“Sadie’s in fourth grade. She’s older than you.”
“I know that, but I’m special. Sadie has a Bastille stone, though.” Luke’s face was turning red from hanging upside down.
“What’s a Bastille stone?”
Out of nowhere a black haired boy named Tony tripped and plowed into Wil, knocking both of them to the ground. Tony picked himself up and extended a hand to help Wil up. “Wil’s it. Had a fit. Kissed a girl and liked it,” Tony announced, trotting away.
Wil tagged one of Luke’s hands hanging down below his head. “Luke’s it.” He scampered away behind a tree.
Luke grabbed hold of the bars and in an effortless motion, flipped down. He plucked something from the pea gravel covering the playground and then dashed off in pursuit.
The leaves in the tree above Wil rustled, and he watched them blow. His hand automatically moved to his chest. His fingers brushed over the space where his talisman should have been, but met nothing. He grabbed at his shirt and pulled it out, searching for his talisman. A surge of panic filled his belly at the sight of his bare chest.
The tree creaked and groaned. A creak overhead intensified to a thundering crack, and a huge tree branch above him splintered from the trunk. Luke ran full speed at Wil and tackled him. The giant limb bucked to the side like something had slammed into it, too. It fell with a crash and a cloud of dust inches from the two boys.
“That was close,” Luke said, rolling off Wil and thrusting the talisman at him.
The commotion brought the teachers on recess duty running. After ascertaining that the boys were okay, they promptly sent them to wash their hands and faces.
“Hey,” Luke said, smearing dirt around his face with a damp paper towel, “Why’d you pretend you didn’t know what a Bastille stone was when you have one?” He nodded towards Wil’s talisman.
Wil shrugged and tucked the stone into his shirt.
Luke shot his paper towel across the bathroom into the trash bin with unnatural accuracy. “Wanna play at my house after school?” He good-naturedly slung his arm around Wil.
Wil grinned. “I’ll ask Lily.”
Lily navigated her way through the lunch room. The aroma of spaghetti and garlic bread on her tray made her stomach rumble, and a feeling of unrest settled over her. Natalie waved from their usual table, and Lily headed her direction. Then Natalie’s eyes widened as she broke into a fit of frantic pointing at something behind Lily.
“What?” Lily mouthed, then stopped and turned right into Zach, sandwiching her lunch tray between herself and his broad muscled chest. As she stepped back and peeled the tray off her shirt, her lunch dripped onto the floor.
“Zach!” Lily growled. “Are you trying to run into me?”
Zach looked dazed for a moment as the disaster sunk in, then his mouth formed an O. “I’m in trouble, huh?” He set his tray, which he’d managed to not spill, down on the nearby table.
Lily handed her empty tray to Zach and pulled spaghetti noodles from her shirt. “Trouble is much too mild a word to describe what you’re in.”
“But you ran into me.” Zach stood there stiffly for a moment. “Here, let me help you.” He held her tray with one hand and raised the other to scrape spaghetti off her shirt. Inches from touching her, he stopped and drew his hand back. His face flushed to within a few shades of the red sauce now splattered across Lily’s front. He stared awkwardly at her chest where the strands of spaghetti decorated her shirt and eked out a pathetic “Umm…”
“Don’t even think about it.” Lily snatched the napkin from Zach’s tray on the table and wiped at the clumps hanging from her shirt. “Does Mr. Stryker give extra credit for acting out his vocabulary words?” Lily asked, and Zach blankly shook his head. “That’s a shame because I’ve never met anyone so inept.”
Lily neatly folded his napkin, now covered with spaghetti sauce, and placed it back on his tray. She paraded out, followed by all the eyes in the cafeteria.
Lily stared at her disastrous shirt in the mirror of the girl’s bathroom. It was a lost cause. She threw the pile of damp, saucy paper towels in the trash and pushed open the door. She’d have to let the secretary know she was going home to change.
Outside the office she paused at the drinking fountain. Lily gulped the cool water and thought about running into Zach in the lunch room. She hadn’t actually touched him, maybe his clothes but not his skin, and she wished she’d taken the chance to touch him. Direct skin contact temporarily subdued her odd desire to touch him, which right then blazed through her veins like fire.
She felt like a drug addict and concentrated on how empty her stomach was in an effort to ignore the feeling. If she hurried, she could grab a PB and J sandwich at home. She stepped back and nearly tripped over something right behind her.
“Ugh!” yelped the owner of the foot under hers.
“Zach!” Lily screeched. She reached a hand to catch herself and slammed down the drinking fountain button sending a full spray into the side of her head.
“You haven’t even turned around. How do you know it’s me?” Zach cringed as he backed against the wall, shaking the foot she’d stepped on.
“Who else would it be?” Lily squeezed water from her hair. “Am I invisible to you or something?”
“No,” Zach said. “It’s not that at all, in fact….” He stopped speaking and his checks lightly colored. “I definitely know you’re here.”
“Then maybe you should listen to your ‘Lily radar’ a little.” Lily swabbed her wet hand across his cheek. Snatching the end of his shirt, she leaned over and dried her face.
Zach didn’t try to stop her.
When she was relatively dry, and his musky scent was causing her heart to do funny flip-flops, she stood up. Her face inches from his. “So help me, if you come within ten feet of me the rest of the day, I’m getting a restraining order.”
She snarled at him and stormed off. Zach studied the sway of her slender hips. He couldn’t get her out of his head. He’d resolved to stay away from her, yet the more he ignored her the more often he would bump into her, literally. He found himself making excuses to walk by her, sit next to her, and even look at her. The sound of her voice did insane things to his head.
He touched his damp cheek, and an uninvited smile turned up the corners of his mouth. She was a Cossi; he was Trohin. It made no sense. He shouldn’t have feelings like this for her, but for some reason, the unconscious Veil that had always kept the two groups apart wasn’t functioning with her. He certainly didn’t feel it. All he felt around her was the hum of electricity.
Lily was beginning to dread school, especially lunch. The controlled classroom environment that distracted Zach’s attention was completely missing in the lunchroom. It didn’t matter how far away she sat from him, his presence pushed up against her.
“I just don’t understand him,” Lily said to Natalie in the lunch line. “First I’m invisible; now he won’t quit watching me. He’s shameless about it, too. He’s not even trying to be sly.”
“I can’t believe he ran into you so many times. He’s never been even remotely clumsy.” Natalie scooped canned peaches onto her tray. “The drinking fountain thing you told me was really tops. My side still hurts from laughing about it. Wiping your face on his shirt; you’re unbelievable. I’d never have thought to do that, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have had the guts to actually do it. Well, maybe with Derek, but who wants to wipe their face on Derek’s shirt?” She handed over her lunch card. “That reminds me, has Derek hit on you yet?”
“No, I don’t think I even have him in any of my classes… oh wait, he’s in my social studies class.”
“I bet Zach’s scared him off. It won’t last. He’ll ask you out. He’s so annoying. Just yesterday I was mowing my backyard in my swimsuit, and halfway through I notice Mr. Creep staring out his second-story at me.”
“Speaking of creepy,” Lily groaned, glancing at Zach who was watching her with hawk-like eyes. “I can’t take Zach ogling at me from across the room. He’s making me crazy.” Lily exited the lunch line. “Time for a more direct approach,” she said, walking toward Zach.
“Are you crazy?” Natalie hissed, following Lily’s resolute form at an uneasy distance.
Lily plopped down beside Zach and scooted her chair all the way over, bumping into his.
Zach’s expression never wavered. “Hey baby, it’s good to see you.”
Lily rolled her eyes. Natalie stood behind Lily and stifled a giggle before looking around for an opening amongst the group of faces ranging from forbidding to mildly curious.
Zach caught Jace’s eye and then glanced at the empty chair next to Jace.
Jace gave a slight nod and brilliantly smiled. “Here’s a chair, Natalie.” She moved to the vacant seat next to him. “How’s your history class going? Are you taking World or US history this year?” he said, in an awkward attempt to start a conversation.
Natalie turned and smiled, “US history, and Mr. Martin talks about you all the time. Obviously, you’re his prized student.”
Lily fished a peach from its syrupy puddle. The pleasant sugary smell caused her mouth to water. “How’s your neck?” she said, biting into the juicy sweetness.
“My neck?” Zach asked, and rubbed the skin around his collar.
“Thought it might be sore from all the rubbernecking you’ve been doing.”
Zach laughed. “I was just trying out my ‘Lily radar.’”
“You’re such a dork, Zach.”
“Am I bothering you?” he asked, seemingly pleased at her distress.
Zach chuckled and picked his fork up. “What happened to the good old days when school lunches actually tasted good?” He scraped his fork through his macaroni and cheese. “How can anyone stomach this? It makes me nauseous just looking at it. I’m not even sure what they call it.”
“Zach and cheese.” Lily tried to keep a smirk from her face.
“What’s that? Did you say this was your absolute favorite?” Zach filled his fork with noodles. “And you want to eat mine, too?” He shoved his fork towards Lily’s mouth.
“Don’t you dare.” Lily leaned back, restraining his hand. “If you get one drop of that on me the rest is going in your face.” The threat was real, but it didn’t stop the laughter from splashing out. Zach muscled the bite closer to her lips.
“Zach, leave her alone.” Aubrey smiled at Lily. “You’ll have to excuse him. Even though my parents say otherwise, I’m sure they dropped him on his head as a baby.” Aubrey turned away but quickly looked back. “By the way, we have to get together and go shopping sometime. Zach wants to buy you a new shirt.”
It was obvious by the repentant face Zach put on that he hadn’t had much practice using it. He looked more confused than apologetic. “Sorry about the spaghetti.”
Lily was expressionless as she glanced from Aubrey to Zach to Aubrey again. “Okay. We’ll have to plan that.” She could have been talking about having a tooth pulled and given a more enthusiastic response.
Aubrey beamed at Zach and returned to her previous conversation.
“I really am sorry,” Zach said, and it almost sounded natural.
“If you say so.” Lily smiled. She picked up his fork still loaded with macaroni and slipped it into her mouth.
“I was wondering something.” Suddenly serious, he caught and held her eyes. “Wil was over Wednesday after school.” Zach set his napkin down, waiting to make sure he had her full attention. She raised one eyebrow, encouraging him to make his point. He leaned in, a whisper’s breath away. “Where’d he get the talisman?”
Lily dropped her eyes. She didn’t really know what to think about Zach recognizing the necklace as a talisman, but she felt defensive and didn’t want to talk about it.
“Where’d Wil get the talisman?” Zach slowly said.
A strange desire to answer his question began to burn in her. It grew stronger until the urge to talk was like the need to drink in the desert. Things she never talked about slipped to the tip of her tongue. She fought to not say anything and then asked a question in return. “What makes you think he’s wearing a talisman?”
“I know a Bastille stone when I see one,” Zach said, still leaning close and talking low. “I’ve seen thousands of them, but what I’ve never seen is a whole one like Wil has. Do you have any idea how valuable a whole Bastille stone is?”
“I know how valuable it is to Wil,” Lily said, battling the compulsion to tell Zach things that had been safely locked away for years. Did Zach have the ability to get inside her head? That thought alone clamped her mouth closed. She glanced around wishing she hadn’t slid over next to Zach because now those two feet made her feel like she was alone with him even though the room was crowded with people.
Zach pursed his lips and focused more intently on Lily. “Luke told me about what happened at the playground when the tree branch almost fell on them.”
Lily looked at Zach and found herself unable to look away; she couldn’t tell if it was her personal desire or something Zach was doing. She ached to talk about her secret life, about the accidents and the deaths and the Shadows she sometimes saw. She desperately wanted to believe she wasn’t alone, but it didn’t seem natural to her to want to talk about all those. She could tell something was pushing her mind.
“You can trust me,” he whispered.
“Do you know what a Cogent is?”
Zach smiled and nodded. “I’m Cogent of the Norvak Covey. I wasn’t informed that anyone had transferred. What covey are you from?”
Lily’s smile faded as a terrible fear rolled through her gut. She’d once again found the people who sent the demon to kill her dad.
Images of the demon and shadowy figures filled her head. The guy in the park so many years earlier had said he’d have someone contact them—a Cogent. The men selling a talisman. The horrible events that had followed came crashing into her mind along with her dad’s warning—“We’ll have to be extra careful dealing with any Cogent. They aren’t people to be trusted.”
Zach watched Lily with interest. “Tell me about your family,” he said in a soothing manner.
“What’s to tell?” she said stiffly, refusing to give in to the compelling warmth of Zach’s voice. She shoved the thoughts of her dad’s death to the back of her mind.
Zach frowned and sat back in his chair. “Guess lunch will be over in a couple minutes. You should probably eat. This being your favorite lunch and all.”
When he grinned at her, she couldn’t help smile back even though she hated herself for it. He shouldn’t feel like a friend, but he did.
Before social studies, Derek sat in the desk in front of Lily and leaned in close. “I was bummed when I found out I only have one class with you,” Derek said, smelling of too much after-shave. “We never get a chance to talk. Maybe we could get together for a soda or a game of bowling.”
Lily’s stomach tightened. “Nothing personal, but I have a boyfriend back in Austin.”
Derek’s lips slid back revealing a railroad track of braces. “When things don’t work out… the offer stands. We’ll go out then.” He wiggled his brows in a provocative way.
“I think you’re in my seat,” Zach said. Derek’s chair hit the floor with a bang, and he vacated it like it had shocked him.
“So.” Zach picked up the chair and plopped into it. “What’s your boyfriend’s name back in Austin?”
Lily pulled the first name that came into her mind and packaged it with a glare. “James.”
“Right baby,” Zach said, swinging sideways in his chair and leaning on her desk. “What’s his last name? Bond?”
Sugar dripped from Lily’s smile. “Why yes, and he said if you don’t leave me alone, he’s gonna have to kill you.”
Zach let half a laugh escape before he stifled it. “Did your James Bond have a Macula?”
“Macula? Like… Dracula?”
“Seriously.” He slid up the sleeve on his left arm revealing a mark shaped like a bird exactly like the birthmark she shared with her dad.
Lily sucked in a deep breath. She wasn’t sure why it surprised her so much. Memories of her father crowded her brain and settled in a lump to her throat. She unconsciously put her hand over the mark on her right arm.
Zach’s eyes followed the motion, and he nodded. “Your parents?”
“My dad, not my mom.” Lily’s eyes opened in surprise that she’d so easily revealed so much, and she clamped her mouth closed.
It took Zach a second to digest the answer. Then he reached over and wrapped his left hand around her forearm. “What’s your Gift?” he asked.
Lily only moved her eyes as she glanced at his hand and back at him. “Answering stupid questions, or at least it will be soon ’cause I’m getting lots of practice.” Using two fingers she picked up his hand from her arm and dropped it back in his lap.
Zach frowned. “This is very important. Stop being such a smart aleck.”
“I think it’s serious, too, but what I think is serious is protecting Wil.” Lily exhaled, completely exhausted by fighting the tug in her mind. “I don’t care about your little birthmark group and all your strange words and secrets. You know, I did need help once. Then my dad died. Where were you then? I promised I would protect Wil, and we’ve been doing just fine on our own.” She fixed her gaze on Zach. “Protecting Wil is the only thing that matters, and if that means leaving this place, I’m prepared to do it. Wouldn’t be the first time we’ve moved because people got too nosey. Wil likes it here in Hypha, so I’d like to let him stay; but I’ll run if I have to.”
Smells of soap, fabric softener, and chocolate chip cookies scented the air when Zach burst through the door after school.
“Mom,” Zach called as he ditched his backpack by the kitchen table and grabbed a stack of warm cookies from the cooling rack.
“I’m in here,” Mrs. Corona answered from the laundry room.
Zach leaned on the doorjamb of the laundry room where his mom stood sorting clothes. “Have you ever heard of a Troh marrying a Cossi?” He took a bite of cookie.
“No.” Mrs. Corona plucked a shirt from the wash basket and held it up looking for stains. “There are stories about it happening, more like rumors, and they never have happy endings.” She stuffed the shirt in the washer, closed the door, and started the cycle. “Why do you ask?” she said over the gentle swish, swish of the washer.
“Lily and Wil are Troh,” Zach said. “Well, halfway. Their dad is; mom isn’t.”
“Are you sure?” Mrs. Corona paused then set a basket of clothes still warm from the dryer down on a folding counter. “What covey?”
“That’s the thing,” Zach said. “Lily doesn’t even know what a covey is. Or a Macula, or Bastille stone or anything.” He stared at the clothes in the front load washer as they flipped and rotated. “You think her dad could have fallen in love with a Cossi and just, I don’t know, abandoned the Troh?”
Mrs. Corona frowned. “Hard to imagine. but it’s possible. Without the shelter of the covey, their chances of survival are poor at best.” She laid a folded towel down. “How in the world did they manage on their own?”
“Not very well. Her dad’s dead. Lily’s clueless about us and hiding what little she does know. She was not excited to find out there were others with her ‘birthmark’.” He said pointing to his Macula. “She threatened to run.”
“Does it matter?” Zach moved his hand over the smooth, metal surface of the washing machine. “They won’t last, especially now. I’ve been thinking… and the only explanation I can come up with for how they lasted so long is”—Zach swallowed a bite of cookie and held up a finger—“one, they have a whole Bastille stone. And two, Lily didn’t have her Gift initiated, so it’s possible the Bacar didn’t know about them.”
“You initiated her Macula?”
“No.” Zach shifted his weight; his face clouded. “I mean, I didn’t mean to. I think it happened on the first day of school. I bumped into her and felt energy arc between us, but I don’t think my ring of fire came in full contact with her.” Zach looked at the birthmark on his left palm. “I’m almost sure it didn’t, but something happened. I thought she was a Cossi. I wasn’t paying attention. I should’ve known what was going on; it just didn’t happen like it usually does. It wasn’t until I saw Wil’s talisman that I started putting it together.”
“Did you fully start her Gift?”
Zach nodded. “I made sure my ring of fire made full contact with her skin today just to be sure, but there was no arc so her Macula’s full started.”
“What’s her Gift?”
Zach shook his head. “I have no idea. It was like my whole brain lit up instead of any one path.” He snorted. “I botched the whole thing.”
“Does she know what Gift she has?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Mrs. Corona laid another folded towel in a neat stack. “I’m glad we found them. I find my heart mistaking Wil as my own.” She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. “I don’t want to see him get hurt.”
Zach watched the sadness fall across his mom’s face, and his eyes drifted to a picture from when he was younger sitting on a nearby shelf. His arm was thrown around a scrawny dark-haired boy, his older brother Wil.
“Every time I see him,” she said in a voice thick with emotion, “I feel like Wil’s come home.”
“I thought he was asleep,” Zach’s deep voice broke. “I didn’t think he would follow me into the woods.”
“I don’t blame you.” Mrs. Corona took her sons hands, forcing him to meet her eyes. “Just finish the penance this year so we can put it behind us. Please.”
“I’m trying,” Zach said, and walked out.
“Interesting choice of shape, Seth,” Cortez said to the balding 40-something man with a blotchy red complexion and sagging gut. Cortez walked towards his parked ambulance. “Who’d you steal that from?”
“Someone who should have gone home before they passed out drunk,” Seth said. “How’d you know it was me?”
Cortez ignored the question. “What do you want?”
“I’m in need of a dealer,” Seth said, following Cortez.
“No.” Cortez opened the door to the ambulance.
“I hear you’re looking for a couple kids, Lily and Wil.”
“The answer’s no. I don’t work for the Bacar anymore. And I sure don’t need their help to locate Lily and Wil.” It wasn’t exactly true. He knew they weren’t in the area since he’d have been able to find Wil’s aura, but he hadn’t figured out which direction they went yet.
Seth smiled. “So you don’t mind if I go visit them?”
Cortez wheeled around to face Seth. “Find someone else to collect a bounty on. They’re no threat to us. They don’t even know who they are.” He put his foot up on the step rail.
“You’re right,” Seth laughed, and rubbed his hand over the rough stubble on his chin. “No one knew. But they’ve become very interesting.”
Cortez paused before he swung himself up into the ambulance. He turned back to Seth. “What do you mean?”
“She’s a Paragon,” Seth said. “Did you know that?”
Cortez’s face hardened. Of course he knew. It probably was his fault the Bacar knew. He had been so shocked when he saw her ring of fire, he’d tipped his hand. Then she disappeared. It was more than likely her scrambling to get away from him that stirred the pot enough that the Bacar got wind.
Yes, he knew she was a Paragon –a healer, a protector. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Something had been healing Wil. He had thought someone else was involved, that someone had a Nuit that would heal. He’d wasted a lot of time looking for someone who wasn’t there. Lily was the reason Wil had lived through so many accidents.
Now that the Bacar knew, she was in far more danger than Wil had ever been. Cortez locked Seth with a deadly glare. “You know me. You know what I’m capable of. You’d be wise to stay away from her.”
“It doesn’t do any good to threaten me,” Seth said sounding almost bored. “Sciontor wants me to relieve Lily of her Gifts. He suggested you could help.”
“No. And the Bacar better keep their soul sucking hands off her.” Even as Cortez said it, he knew they wouldn’t. If Sciontor was involved, the Bacar meant business. They wouldn’t let someone as valuable as a Paragon, an untrained Paragon, escape. Even if they didn’t want to steal her Gifts, they wouldn’t let that much raw energy go to waste.
“In exchange for your help, I’ll let you be a free agent,” Seth said.
“I’m already a free agent.”
Seth grinned and held up a red rectangular crystal with rough edges. “If she doesn’t give her Gifts to me, then I’ll just take them,” he said with an arrogant smirk.
Cortez’s eyes narrowed. He’d only seen a Sovereign Crystal from a distance. Standing this close felt like standing next to bottled lightning. He could feel its energy, and the hair on his arms stood up. He moved his face within inches of Seth’s, bunching his fist in Seth’s shirt. “If you take her Gifts with that, it’ll kill her.”
“It’s not my first choice.” Seth looked down at Cortez’s hand gripping his shirt, and held up the Sovereign Crystal, bringing it closer to Cortez’s face, like he was reminding Cortez that he had it. “Force never makes for a very clean transfer, but without a good Nuit to cloak my aura, it’s the only option.”
Cortez loosening his grip on Seth’s shirt and stepped back, keeping track of the crystal from the corner of his eye. “What’s the matter, can’t make a good Nuit yourself?” He wiped his hands on his scrubs and pulled himself up into the ambulance.
“I need Nuits that do exactly what I want, when I want,” Seth said. “It’s no secret you’re the best dealer out there. Getting the Nuits from you will work out for both of us since I know you want the girl to keep her brain, so you’ll give me the best Nuits you have.”
Cortez considered the crystal and the challenge in Seth’s eyes. Seth may be a lesser demon, but he was still a demon; a demon that had somehow gotten his hands on a Sovereign Crystal, which made him very dangerous. Lily was in serious trouble. “If I help you, you can’t kill Lily,” Cortez said. Seth only smiled. Cortez waited. “We either have a deal or we don’t. You can’t kill Lily.”
Seth nodded looking slight annoyed. “I need a Nuit to amplify my allurement so I can gain her trust.”
“And then what?”
“I’ll tell her it’s her Gifts that have been drawing all the attention to Wil and putting him in danger.” Seth shrugged. “She’ll be happy to let them go because then Wil will be safe.”
Cortez nodded. “I doubt Lily’s aware of what a homing beacon Wil’s aura is for the Bacar, so a half-truth might work.” Cortez looked Seth up and down. “You think you could’ve done a worse job picking out a body? She’s not going to be friends with an old man with a spare tire around the middle, Cloaking and Allurement Nuit or not.”
Seth glanced down at his sagging gut and then at Cortez’s hard, trim body before checking to be sure no one was watching. “I can fix that.”
The cells in his face and body wrenched and contorted and then they re-formed into a much younger version. He had the same cold gray eyes but with the thin, muscled body of a teen and bleach-white hair covering the top of his previously balding head. “Meet the sixteen year-old Seth Turner,” he said, wickedly grinning.
Cortez nodded. “You’ll have to work fast. It won’t take her long to catch on.”
“I knew you’d come around,” Seth said, polishing the crystal on his sleeve.
Cortez watching with interest as Seth pocketed the crystal and said, “If you double cross me, I will hunt you down. Even Sciontor, himself, won’t be able to save you.”
Zach and a small group of guys exited the boys’ locker room at the pool for gym. Zach’s skin had a warm, healthy glow with drops of water still clinging to it from his pre-swim shower.
Lily was drawn to the birthmark on his left arm. She tried to pretend she didn’t like the way he looked, but she did. In fact, there were only two things she didn’t like about what she was seeing. The first was a scar on his left shoulder with four parallel lines, like he’d been attacked sometime in the past by a grizzly. The second was a lot more recent. A deep scratch that ran down his entire left arm was scabbed, and the flesh around it was red and swollen.
The wound reminded her why she had to steer clear of him: he and his group were dangerous. She could feel it in every fiber of her being. He turned and she forced her eyes to the clock on the wall above him.
Zach knew Lily had been looking at him, the way you feel a lamp heat your skin when you stand close to it. When he didn’t catch her eye, his gaze wandered over the rest of her, and he completely lost himself in an appraisal. A simple one-piece suit with creamy swirls of blue molded to her curves. Her brown hair was loosely tied back, and soft tendrils escaped, caressing her neck and shoulders.
His heart rammed through his chest as if it could pursue her across the room by itself. He jumped in the pool, definitely needing a cool-down before he had more things to deal with than just a racing heart. He came up at her feet feeling more in control of himself until he looked up at her.
“Where’s Natalie?” Zach asked, drawing her attention.
Lily turned and shrugged. “I thought about stopping by her house after school.”
“Why don’t you?” he said, pulling himself out of the water.
“I might, but I told Wil he could play with Luke this afternoon. So after I pick him up, I need to walk him to your house.” She tried to keep from looking at the rippled muscles on his bare chest, yet her eyes drifted, unable to keep from devouring every inch of his chiseled torso. She fixated on the cut running down his arm trying to remind herself of the danger he represented.
“He can walk home with Luke and Sadie,” Zach offered, stiffly shifting his injured arm to his side and out of view.
“He’d probably get himself run over at least once every block.” Lily met his eyes, which took a few seconds because his eyes had been wandering, too. “He told me your mom was going to have him walk home by himself. If he had, he would’ve never made it alive. I’m not sure why. . . I assumed she would just—know how dangerous it is for Wil. I can’t believe I was that careless.”
“He’ll be okay. Now that I know you two are here, it won’t be so dangerous. There’s strength in numbers. I’m going to include you two in the Norvak Covey. It’ll be—”
“No, you won’t.” Lily glared at him. “I told you, I don’t want any part of this.”
“What’s your problem?” Zach said. “You don’t know anything about us.”
Lily allowed her eyes to flitter across his shoulders and settle on his arm again. “You are dangerous or at least connected with something dangerous, and Wil doesn’t need any extra help in that area.”
“Baby, this,” Zach brought his arm around so the deep scratch was more visible, “there’s more involved—”
“I don’t care what’s involved. Tell me you didn’t get hurt doing something with your group.” Lily probed his eyes, affirming her comment.
The desire to be close to him roiled through her. She shook her head but instead of leaving, gave in and touched his arm. Her fingertips whispered over the wound and down his arm. Heat from his skin seeped into her fingers, and she laid her palm against his bicep. His skin felt unusually warm beneath her hand. She looked up at him and leaned in closer. “There’s nothing safe about you,” she whispered, and walked away.
At the end of class, Emma came around the pool heading for the locker room. Even after an hour of soaking in chlorine, Emma had the pungent odor of perfume. Lily hugged herself, placing her hand over the mark on her arm. She hadn’t been completely surprised when she’d seen the shadow of a bird on Emma’s leg. Emma was part of Zach’s group. That made being part of it even less appealing.
“Like, whatcha lookin’at?” Emma asked, peering past Lily at a group of girls kneeling at the side of the pool staring into the empty bottom.
One of the girls at the side of the pool burst into tears. “I should’ve taken them out. My mom’s going to kill me. She doesn’t know I borrowed ’em, and they’re the diamond earrings she wore when she got married.”
“Oh my gosh,” Emma giggled. “You are so totally dead.”
Lily pushed past Emma in disgust. “I’ll look under water. You can see better with your face right up close to the bottom.” She slipped into the pool.
“It looks like this,” the girl said, holding out the other earring.
Lily swam to the bottom and moved back and forth, systematically scanning the pool.
Zach stopped at the side and watched, then glanced at the clock and calculated how long Lily had been under water. At least 30 seconds. Forty-five. He unconsciously started to hold his breath.
Lily’s hands fanned out, skimming the bottom. The water gave her body a washed-out quality, stretching it into odd shapes beneath the shimmering surface.
A minute and a half.
Did any of the other girls notice how long she’d been down there? Zach shifted his weight and drummed his fingers. Any second now…
His lungs began to burn, and Lily had been holding her breath longer. What was she trying to prove? Didn’t she know better than to so blatantly show off a Gift in front of a bunch of Cossi? No, of course she didn’t.
Then it occurred to Zach that it had only been a week since he initiated her Macula. The ability to control your breathing wasn’t an inaugural Gift. She couldn’t possibly have a second Gift so soon. Something didn’t add up. Stars began to dance around the edges of his vision. He gasped, drawing Emma’s puzzled gaze.
Lily’s hand bumped something, and she went back over the area. She burst through the surface and held the earring up, smiling with triumph. Two minutes eight seconds.
Zach snagged Lily’s arm as the grateful girls paraded into the locker room. “What were you thinking?” he whispered.
Lily raised one eyebrow and then rolled her eyes. “For starters, compassion. Ever heard of it?”
“You were underwater for over two minutes…. And you can’t see a diamond earring any better underwater than from the edge. Nothing says, ‘don’t pay any attention to me’ like showing off.”
“Showing off?” She glared at him. “I’m not looking for any thanks, but I wouldn’t mind if you didn’t get mad at me for helping.” Lily dragged her glare across the infected red cut on his arm to his left hand, which firmly grasped her arm. “Do you mind?” she said with a frosty voice.
Instead of releasing her, he pulled her closer, a growl rumbled in his chest. Blue eyes bore down on her. He leaned in, and Lily averted her gaze. She watched the pulse on his neck race and could hear the blood rushing through her own veins in time with his, if from anger, fear or something else she couldn’t tell.
The flat of her hand pressed against his bare chest, and she pushed him back a little. She turned, and her eyes were caught by a long pink strip marring the tan flesh on his left arm. It took a couple seconds more before what she was seeing registered. The ugly gash that was slightly infected was gone, leaving only a pink shadow of the injury. Had she healed him? They’d only touched for a few seconds.
She looked down hoping he wouldn’t notice, but it was too late. Zach let her go and ran his hand up and down his arm.
Zach’s eyes flashed to Lily. He wanted answers. “When did you get your Macula?” Zach gestured to the bird shadow on her right arm.
“My birthmark?” She made a face. “Same time you got yours, dummy. I was born with it.” The second she said it she knew she’d said too much.
He caught her left hand in his and flipped it over. The blank skin on her palm stared back at them. “Only Cogents and Paragons are born with their Macula. They also have a Ring of Fire.” He held up his left palm. A circular mark like the one Lily bore on her right palm burned bright on his palm. “When did you really get it?”
Lily’s eyes darted from his palm to his face and back again. She inched away from him and fisted her right hand that bore the same mark.
In a blur of movement, he secured her right wrist. She clamped her hand closed. His eyes went dark willing her to open her fingers. She yanked her hand back, but it stayed firmly in his grasp. He intently looked into her eyes. She stared back. His eyes commanded, and hers rebelled.
He sighed and loosened his hold on her wrist until her fist was cradled in his hand. “Please?” he whispered.
Gradually, slowly, she opened her fist, revealing the Ring of Fire.
He dropped her hand like it had burned him. “You’re a Paragon,” he sputtered. “But Cogents and Paragons always have their marks on the left.”
“Zach,” Coach Mac called. “Hurry up. We need to get going.”
“Okay.” Zach turned back as Lily disappeared into the locker room. He grinned. He couldn’t have been happier if he’d won the lottery. In fact, this was much, much better.
“So little buddy, how was school?” Lily asked when she picked Wil up.
“We learned about forte in music today. It means loud.” Holding his sister’s hand, Wil skipped along next to her. “Mrs. Livingston let Luke feed the mice, Leo and Ferguson, and they got out. So, we had to look for them, but we only found Leo. Then Mrs. Cleff came for music.”
“Your music teacher’s name is Mrs. Cleff?” Lily smiled.
“Yep, but she says she’s in a cage and so her last name is going to be Harmon.”
“In a cage?”
“Yep, she’s in love. Elsie said she has to be in a cage until she’s married, and Luke says she’s tied down after she’s married. She must really love her guy ’cause she still wants to get married.”
Lily chuckled. “Engaged. She’s engaged. It means she’s going to get married.”
“Oh… that’s good ’cause she didn’t have a cage with her. I looked… but she found Ferguson, our other mouse. And guess what? She doesn’t even like mice. She told Mrs. Livingston how much she doesn’t like mice in a very forte voice. And that was the end of our music lesson. So what’s not true,” he said, playing one of his favorite games.
“Your music teacher’s name isn’t really Mrs. Cleff,” Lily said, not making any attempt at being right since she almost never was.
“Nope, we didn’t find Leo before Mrs. Cleff came. Mrs. Cleff found Leo in her bag of music stuff when she got to the next room. She must have been teaching that class about forte, too.”
A car engine revved. A dark blue vintage car with a white stripe down the hood pulled along the curb from the wrong direction stopping beside them.
Wil stared with hungry eyes. “It’s a Malibu SS Clone.” He listened to the hum of the engine. “I bet it has the 350 engine.”
Lily rolled her eyes. “You know normal kids can’t list the make and model of every car that they see. And they certainly don’t know what kind of engine a car has.”
Wil began to bounce up and down as Zach exited the car. “Look! I know him. That’s Zach.” Wil dragged Lily toward Zach. “He’s someone important, and he said I don’t have to call him Sir or Mister but just Zach because we are good friends. He’s real nice. I bet he would let you call him just Zach, too.”
“Really, you think he would?” Lily said dryly, and cringed as Wil towed her up to Zach.
“Zach, is that your beautiful car?” Wil asked with profound reverence.
“Sure is, sport,” Zach said. “Is that your beautiful sister?”
“Yep, her name’s Lily,” Wil said. “Can she call you just Zach, too? She’s real nice. Maybe you could be her friend, too? Huh?”
Zach grinned from ear to ear. “Of course sport, just Zach’s fine. I have a feeling she and I are going to be real good friends.” He extended his hand to Lily.
Reflex had Lily shaking hands with him before it registered that she didn’t want to. She strained a smile. “Hello, ‘just Zach,’ nice to make your acquaintance. Sorry we have to go so soon, but I bet you’ll run into me again.” She snatched Wil’s hand to make a break for it.
Zach leaned against his car. “Wil, I hear you’re coming over to play with Luke. Do you want to ride in this beauty?”
Lily could feel the plea coming like a ground-shaking landslide before Wil uttered a sound. “Please Lily? It’s a Malibu Clone. Please….” Wil turned to Zach. “What year is it?”
“Please, it’s a 1972 Malibu SS Clone.” Wil employed his doe eyes.
Lily’s shoulders sagged. Her hand covered her face in resignation. “I’ll sit in the back with you.”
“There’re only three seat belts back there.” Zach opened the passenger door for her. “Only enough for Wil, Luke, and Sadie.” He winked. Wil trailed his hand across the front bumper and hood as he headed to the driver’s side. Zach held the door for Lily and closed it after her.
A screeching sounded a warning as an empty truck parked about twenty feet off rolled forward. Slowly at first and then faster, like a train picking up steam, it chugged down the low grade hill towards Zach’s car. Wil stood directly in its path completely engrossed in Zach’s car.
“Wil!” Lily screamed, yanking on the door handle. With a snap, the handle broke off into her hand. Panicked, she pounded on the window, desperate to get Zach’s attention.
Zach jolted forward, then abruptly stopped before he rounded the hood of the car. He eyed the truck bearing down on Wil and back at Lily like he expected her to magically fix the problem.
Lily held up the door handle, frantically hammering at the window and gesturing to the truck. She dove across to the driver side door thinking, “Zach, you idiot, save him.”
Zach’s head flinched back toward Lily. The beefy truck barreled forward. Zach looked intently at the front wheels, and they rotated hard to the side so the truck swerved. It was too late. The truck clipped Zach against the bumper, momentarily pinching his body between the two vehicles as it narrowly missed crushing his bumper.
The truck sped across the parking lot and launched over a curb, finally coming to rest against a telephone pole.
Lily flew out of the driver side door. “Where’s Wil?”
“What?” Zach answered, dazed.
“Wil! Where is he?” she shouted, shoving Zach with both hands.
Wil crawled out from under Zach’s car between them. Lily scooped him up. “Are you hurt?” Her hands flew over him. A small scrape on his palm was all she found. She rocked back on her heels, relief wiping the panic from her face.
“It missed me. I got down low,” Wil said. “Was that good thinking?”
“Very good thinking.” Lily looked at Zach. “At least someone was using his head.”
Zach stifled a groan and rubbed his side. Then he bent and twisted at the waist. “Oooo, that’s going to bruise.”
“Why’d you just stand there and let the truck hit you?”
Zach shrugged and hobbled towards her. “It was either that or let it crunch the car.”
Lily rolled her eyes. “I suppose protecting your precious car was why you didn’t bother to get Wil out of the way.”
“Well… I figured you’d”—Zach gestured hocus pocus with his hands—“do whatever you do to protect people.”
Lily looked at Zach in amazement. “You really are an idiot. Whatever I do? What I do when I see a truck rolling towards someone and a door handle breaks in my hands”—she pushed the broken handle at Zach with a look of indignation—“and I can’t get there fast enough? I hope that someone who is closer”—she jabbed her finger into Zach’s chest—“would have sense enough to pull that other someone out of the way, instead of standing there with his finger up his nose.”
Zach’s shoulders sagged.
Lily stopped and frowned. “You’re hurt.”
“Not too bad.” Zach grimaced and then swayed.
Zach tapped a tool on his leg and stared at the wall of his garage. His back never felt better. He knew he should be giving some thought to whether she had healed him or maybe how she had healed him. Instead, he was replaying a different scene in his mind.
Lily had insisted on checking his back and had him lean against his car. She pushed her thumb against one vertebra in his back and then the next.
“Knew you couldn’t keep your hands off me for long,” Zach cooed over his shoulder. “Ow!”
“Stop moving. You’re making this difficult.” Lily continued to work her way down his back. When he flinched again, she lifted his shirt and pressed her thumb against his bare flesh in that spot.
A fire sprang to life in Zach’s back rolling through his body in a burning wave. Something about her touch, her hands caressing his skin, short circuited his brain. He imagined her wrapped in his arms, the feel of her body, the way it pressed up against his. He hadn’t even realized he’d groaned until she froze. His shirt slipped back down as her hand withdrew. Of course then he really made an idiot of himself.
“Angel, don’t stop now. It’s just starting to feel good.”
“I might be an angel to you, but you’re ‘just Zach’ to me. Save it for someone who actually likes you.”
She was a wall of ice riding in his car and left the moment Wil was in the house with Luke.
Zach repeatedly flipped the tool over in his hand as he ran the exchange through his mind over and over.
“Lily didn’t come get me.” Wil stood in the doorway of Zach’s garage.
The tool Zach was holding clanged on the floor. “Um, do you know where she is?” Zach said, and Wil shook his head. Zach checked his watch. “Is dinner ready?” Wil nodded. “You go eat, and I’ll find Lily. I think she went to Natalie’s. She probably just lost track of time.”
Zach slowly drove, watching for Lily on the way to Natalie’s.
“Lily left here an hour ago,” Mr. Jagger said when Zach knocked at Natalie’s door a few minutes later. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, she’s probably at home. I should’ve checked there first,” Zach said, heading back to his car. When he got in, he paused in the motion of turning the key in the ignition. Rolling the window down, he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.
The evening was turning pink. His gaze swept past Natalie’s house then swung back to the gate which led to the backyard. A tall privacy fence with trees peeking out from behind it and a flowery show in front hid Mrs. Jagger’s immaculate gardens from the street view.
Zach hurried over, swung the gate open and stepped into the perfectly manicured walkway. Tucked closeby under a tree and partly hidden by a lilac bush, Lily lay on a wooden garden bench.
She didn’t stir.
“Lily.” Zach touched her pale cheek and jostled her shoulder. He watched her chest expand and contract with each breath. “Lily, wake up.”
Still no response.
Zach lifted her in his arms, firmly hugging her to his chest. He carried her to his car and carefully laid her on the front bench seat. He made quick work of driving back to his house.
In the driveway, Zach looked from Lily to the house. Should he carry her in? Would Wil freak out, or was this a normal occurrence? He pulled into the attached garage and stopped the car, leaving the garage door open. He stared at Lily then slid over to the passenger side and pulled her into his lap.
The garage door into the house opened, spilling light into the open window of the car. The short, pudgy form of Brian Corona, Zach’s dad, descended the garage steps. He lowered his face until it was framed by the window. A can light by the door reflected off his balding head. His expression was unreadable when he saw Lily unconscious on Zach’s lap. He waved, stood back up, and without a word ducked back into the house.
A few minutes later Mrs. Corona came into the garage carrying a plate of food. She leaned in and laid the plate on the seat. “Is she okay?” she whispered.
Zach’s eyes didn’t leave Lily. “I don’t know. She’s sleeping, and I can’t wake her up. I wish I knew if this was normal for her. I don’t think it is, so I don’t want to bring her in and risk scaring Wil. I just don’t know anything about Paragons. Do you have any guesses?”
“Not really. I’ve never met one. I could call Gramps.”
“No,” he said too quickly. “I’ll tell him… I just want to get a few things figured out first.”
Mrs. Corona looked like she wanted to protest but nodded her acceptance. “Tell me if you need something,” she said, and went back in the house.
Zach watched Lily sleep. Every few minutes she softly hummed or nuzzled his chest. He stroked her cheek and smoothed her hair back. She purred in her sleep and burrowed into his arms but didn’t wake.
He wasn’t sure he wanted her to wake right then anyway. Her full lips beckoned him. He moistened his lips as the desire to taste hers ravaged through him. He imagined his lips skimming over hers, the slightest touch, only enough to feel their satiny smoothness. He cuddled her closer. The distance between their mouths narrowed in small increments until he could feel the whisper of her breath.
“Zach, if you kiss me, I swear I’ll break your jaw.”
He jerked up, and Lily scrambled from his lap to the other side of the bench seat. She picked up the plate of food and held it between them like it would protect her.
“What the heck is going on here? Why am I here?” She pressed herself against the car door.
“I found you asleep in Natalie’s backyard.”
“So you thought you’d bring me here and do what?” She glared at him and then looked at the food that was ready to tip from the edge of the plate in her hand. She scooted the food back towards the center of the plate.
Her icy look was like a splash of cold water, but he couldn’t resist teasing her. “If you come back over here for a minute, I was about to give you love’s first kiss. You know the story Princess.” Zach’s voice was low and husky. “Prince Charming came to your rescue, and you were awakened by—”
“Tacky Zach, very tacky.” Lily rolled her eyes and scooted even closer to the door, pushing his outstretched hand away. “Where’s Wil?”
“Inside playing with Luke. He just finished dinner.”
“Thanks for feeding him.” Lily eyed the plate of food she held and her stomach growled. “What time is it?” She broke a piece of crust off the quiche and ate it.
Zach looked at his watch. “It’s almost seven-thirty. I found you over an hour ago. Do you pass out like that very often?” Zach asked. Lily shrugged and took a bite of the banana muffin. “So you have passed out before.”
“I wouldn’t say I’ve passed out. I’ve gotten super tired… although I’ve never…” She used the fork and took a bite of the quiche. “I’ve never woken up in hostile territory before.”
“When does this happen?”
“You mean when I get tired? I don’t know.” She took another bite and thought for a moment. “I guess mostly when Wil gets hurt.”
“Was Natalie sick?” Zach watched with great interest as Lily devoured his dinner.
“Yeah, she has the flu,” Lily focused on the food she was eating, “and she just found out her mom has cancer. It doesn’t look very good for her mom. She starts chemo this week. I think that’s what Natalie said.”
“Did you see Mrs. Jagger?”
“No.” Lily finished the last bit of the banana muffin and used the tip of her finger to pick up the final few crumbs.
“Was Natalie feeling better when you left?”
“Hmm, she seemed to be.”
“That’d be three times today that you’ve healed someone.” He held his finger to her lips to squelch the protest forming there and continued as if explaining to himself. “My arm at the pool, my back after school, and Natalie. That’s a lot of energy to use in one day.”
Lily pushed away his finger. “What?” She’d never talked about this with anyone but her dad. It felt like an invasion of privacy. “Heal?” She laughed out loud. “Are you all there? I’m not a doctor.”
“You’re a Paragon. You protect and heal people.”
“No, I’m a girl, a plain old ordinary girl who hasn’t even finished high school.” She opened the driver’s side car door. “I’m not even sure what I want to be when I grow up.” Bending down to see Zach, she glued a smile to her unwilling face. “I’m going to get Wil. He needs to get to bed.” She paused and thought, “If you offer us a ride home, I’ll accept.” With the empty plate in hand, she shut the car door.
“Hey, wait.” Zach climbed over the seat after her. “If I offer you two a ride home… will you accept?” Lily’s back went rigid, and silence floated through the garage. Without turning to look at him, she nodded and went into the house.
Ten minutes later, Zach pulled into Lily’s driveway. He hopped out and flipped his seat forward for Wil. Carrying Wil’s backpack, he followed Lily to the side door of the house. She held the door open, and Wil ducked under her arm into the dark house. Lily turned to Zach. He was closer than she had anticipated, and her heart skittered around in her chest.
She looked at her shoes hoping to squelch the wobbly feeling in her knees. “I’m not sure what to say… thanks for watching out for Wil and me.”
Zach threw his arms around her. She squirmed trying to get away, but he pulled her closer still. Her cheek pressed against his shoulder and she stopped struggling. She fought against liking the way it felt to be in his arms by concentrating on the always present dark fear that he brought with him.
“Sweetheart, this is only the beginning. I’m always going to be there for you.”
Lily’s whole body stiffened at his words. Putting her hands flat against his chest she pushed him back.
“Zach, I appreciate you helping me this evening but… I’m not interested in a relationship, and even if I was, it wouldn’t be with you.” She backed into the house. “Go take a cold shower and get a grip on reality.”
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