Chapter 1: The Angel
Ashton Harrison stood before the large mirror in his room and let his mother fuss. And fuss. And fuss. Constantly smoothing and repositioning and clicking her tongue against the back of her teeth in dissatisfaction as she did everything she could to make sure his jacket was perfect.
Or as perfect as it could be when it was hiding a large pair of wings.
Ashton held his breath and prayed to whoever or whatever was listening that she declared it as good as it was going to get and let him leave. Since his eighth birthday, he had been subjected to tutor after private tutor, never allowed to play with kids his own age because of the secret that had started growing on his back when he was six years old. Now, at sixteen, the thing he wanted most in the world was to have friends. He’d do just about anything for it. He would move to this remote house in this middle-of-nowhere town. He would wear the specially made jacket that constricted his wings so hard that it hurt. He would even never be allowed to take his new friends home, as long as he could just go to school.
“Talia,” his father, Mr. Robert Harrison, one of the highest-paid lawyers of Gibson & Dunn, New York, NY chided. “It’s as good as it’s going to get. And he needs to be on time, to make a good impression.”
“What if...” His mother began and Ashton’s heart began to beat painfully fast.
“Talia,” his father put a hand on his mother’s shoulder. “He needs to learn how to talk to people his own age. He needs to go to college very soon. And after that there might be law school.”
As if Ashton cared an ounce about keeping up that lineage of lawyers that went as far back as the American Revolution…okay, he cared a little bit about how they could keep track of their family to the American Revolution. But as for the lawyers part…all that had ever given Ashton was pain.
His mother sighed. “All right.” She gave the jacket once last pat and gave Ashton a stern look. “Remember, keep it on.”
“And come straight home after school,” his father added.
“You sure you don’t want Walter to drive you?” His mother asked.
Ashton shook his head mutely. No. The private car was too flashy. Better to arrive on his bike.
“All right, be good.”
And they finally let him leave. Ashton had memorized the route to school already, tracing the image on Google with his eyes again and again on the days leading up to this. It was his path to freedom.
Or, Ashton amended as he cut across the grass and merged into the bike path along the road, the closest thing to freedom I’m ever going to get.
Jamestown High wasn’t a large school by any standards; only about five hundred people and most had been friends since kindergarten. His mother had said that the town, Jamestown, nearly doubled in size during the summer, when rich folk that lived across New England came up to their summer homes along the beach. But only the year-round inhabitants sent their kids to the local school.
Even so, Ashton found himself overwhelmed the second he stepped onto the campus. For one, it was just so loud. Ashton had always had hypersensitive eyesight and hearing and the sheer noise of people shouting down the halls, sneakers squeaking, and lockers slamming shut almost had him running back home.
Instead, Ashton gritted his teeth, stuck his earbuds into his ears – it drowned out the worst of the noise – and made his way through the crowd to the front office. Transfer students had to check in first.
The front office was mercifully quiet and Ashton cautiously pulled off his headphones. The female secretary at the front desk had a no-nonsense haircut and wore a neat cardigan – she didn’t seem like the type to let a teenager talk to her while he or she was wearing headphones.
“Ashton Harrison?” She guessed, looking up at him.
Ashton nodded, uncertain.
“We don’t get many transfer students,” she explained. “Junior, right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said politely.
She looked down at his schedule and frowned a bit. “Mind if I change your home room? The students tell me that Mr. Jenks is a bit hard-headed. If you’re new to town I wouldn’t want him to be your first experience.”
“Sure...I mean, thanks,” Ashton said.
“No problem,” she said, typing away and then hitting print. “I did the same for the god-daughter just this morning. Except in her case her older brother and Mr. Jenks didn’t see eye to eye and she just wished to avoid the whole situation...Jacob Adams!”
The last bit was directed at the form of a student walking past the open office door.
The boy in question, who had hair so blonde it was practically white, stuck in his head, “What? Am I in trouble already?”
The woman – who Ashton suddenly noticed had the name Mrs. Adams on her faculty name-tag – gave him a sharp look. “Have you already done something to get yourself into trouble?”
“No,” Jacob protested. “Sheesh, mom, don’t you trust me?”
Mrs. Adams raised an eyebrow and asked, “Did your younger brother get to school okay?”
“He has a phone, mom.”
“Which he is not allowed to use during school hours,” she replied.
Jacob shrugged and replied, “Yeah, he got there okay.”
“Good.” She turned back to a rather bemused Ashton and handed him the new schedule. “Ashton, meet my son Jacob-”
“Jake,” Jake interrupted, coming closer and extending his hand, “Only parents call me Jacob-”
“He’s in your home room,” she finished.
“Sweet!” Said Jake, “I’ll take you there.”
Ashton just nodded, a bit overwhelmed.
“See ya, mom!” Jake called, already half-way out the door.
“Jake,” she said warmly.
“Stay out of trouble.”
Jake’s response was to laugh. Ashton followed behind him and couldn’t help but compare the interaction with what he’d had with his mom less than half an hour ago and feel odd. Almost cheated.
“So, Ashton, where’re you from?” Jake asked amicably as they walked down the hall. Ashton forced himself to focus on Jake’s voice and some of the noise faded into a background buzz. Weird.
“New York,” Ashton replied.
“Really?” Jake turned to face him eagerly, “Did you, you know, see that huge police chase a month back?”
“You mean the guy who could walk through walls and went a little nuts?”
Jake nodded, eyes bright with excitement. Ashton allowed himself a smile. He’d also gone a bit nuts himself when he’d heard the news. Someone else in the universe wasn’t normal in the way Ashton wasn’t normal. In a way that belonged in comic books and TV shows, in a way that should mean capes and catching crime and not hiding in your house like a freak. Except that hadn’t turned out too well for the walking-through-walls-guy. He’d ended up on the run from the police and then committed suicide in jail.
“Some of it,” he told Jake. “I could see the chase on the highway from my window.”
“Did you see him? The wall-walker?” Demanded Jake, just as they reached the classroom in question. It seemed as if the professor, a young woman whose desk said Ms. Mora, had just started to take roll and everyone looked at the pair in question. Ashton’s shyness came back double.
“Nice timing,” smirked a girl. “Now whenever your name is called you have to barge in talking at the top of your lungs, okay?”
The class all laughed, including (to Ashton’s surprise) Jake himself, who gave the girl a high-five on the way to an empty seat right behind her. Ashton slunk into the seat beside him, still uncertain.
Ms. Mora continued through the roll-call. Given the whole alphabetical order thing, Ashton expected to be last. Instead, he was surprised to be called on before the girl that had teased Jake: Alexandra Morgan.
“Alex,” she told their teacher brightly when it was her turn. “No one calls me Alexandra.”
She must be Mrs. Adams’s god-daughter, Ashton thought, even as he silently raised his hand in response to his own name being called. That certainly explained the easy camaraderie between her and Jake.
“Now usually I would say some sort of announcements or, honestly, let you goof off a bit,” Ms. Mora said as she logged off her computer. “But since I’m new to the school I thought I’d make you all get up and say something about yourself that maybe the others in the room don’t know. To help me remember your names. What do you think?”
The class mumbled agreement and she had them start in the corner of the room.
Ashton quickly lost track of what was going on. Even though he was really good with faces and voices, he pretty soon realized that he was hopeless with names. Not that I’ve ever had much time to practice, he thought moodily. He forced himself to pay attention when it was Alex’s turn.
“My name’s Alex,” she began dutifully, “And...” She paused thinking. “And I really like electronics.” She said brightly.
“Say what?” said one of the boys. Football, Ashton instantly thought as he looked at him, though he had no idea why.
“I rewired most of our house on my own,” Alex explained. “It was fun. I’m hoping to start a robotics team at the school this year with my brother. So if you want to build robots, Facebook message me.” She sat back down. And Ashton realized that Jake was silently laughing. Five more people and then:
“I’m Jake and my favorite time of year is winter,” Jake said brightly.
About half the class laughed and one boy called, “We already knew that Adams!”
“Snowboard team unite!” His buddy called. And Jake ran over to join them in a three-way high-five.
And suddenly it was Ashton’s turn. “Ugh...I’m Ashton...and um....”
“And he’s new in town,” Jake chimed in helpfully.
“Ugh, yeah, I’m from New York City and ugh...” The story Ashton had been telling Jake popped back into his head and, suddenly desperate to make a good impression, Ashton said, “And I saw the wall-walker get arrested from my bedroom window.”
“WHAT?” Said the entire class and Ms. Mora.
“Yeah, I lived in Queens so they told us to stay in our houses with the shades drawn cause someone potentially dangerous was on the road,” said Ashton, warming up to the story. “But I left mine open and watched the stuff happening. He was in a car, you know, and then tried to walk out of the car while it was moving and messed that up and that was how they caught him. I think they tranq’d him so that he wouldn’t keep escaping. My mother freaked out though, and that’s why we moved.”
Ashton suddenly realized that every single person was staring at him with their mouths open and sat down quickly, his voice once again gone.
“Wow,” breathed Alex. And then the bell rang.
It was as if a spell had been broken. Everyone began talking at once and Ashton found himself rather desperately sticking his headphones back into his ears. When he looked back up, he found both Jake and Alex still looking at him.
“Noise?” Alex guessed. Ashton had to read her lips, but it wasn’t too hard.
Embarrassed, Ashton nodded.
“My brother is the same with light,” she said. “What’s your first class?”
“Ugh...” Good question. Ashton pulled out his schedule. “Chemistry?”
“Same,” said Alex. “Need a guide?”
Ashton nodded gratefully.
“All right, see you two at lunch,” said Jake, and he dashed off to catch up with the snowboarding bros.
Alex didn’t attempt to speak to Ashton during the walk down the hall. Which was fine since Ashton had to turn on his music and turn it up to drown out the impromptu hallway football game that broke out along their path. Alex handled it in her stride, snatching the football out of mid-air; getting her a whistle from the home room Football jock (Ashton had a momentary surge of pride that he’d been right). Alex gave him a glare and a boy who had been leaning against a locker chatting with his friends stepped closer.
“Hey, Bradley,” said the newcomer. “Knock it off.”
Alex threw the football and the newcomer easily intercepted Bradley’s catch.
“You won’t always be around to play big brother, Morgan,” Bradley said, trying to get the ball.
Alex’s brother stepped back, still holding the football, and said, “Maybe not. But for now-” he threw the football and Bradley barley managed to stop it from breaking his nose. “Leave my sister alone.”
Alex shot her brother a smile and tapped Ashton on the arm to get his attention, before stepping into a nearby classroom.
She sat down in a seat in the second row and pulled out her phone, Ashton slunk into the other chair at the lab bench, uncertain. His sharp eyes easily read the message she typed to someone called “Drew: Nice job. But you know I could have handled that.
The response came a few seconds later: I know, but Mark Bradley’s a tool and no one messes with you if I have a say.
Alex half-laughed under her breath and sent a reply: Fine. You win. <3
She stowed her phone and looked back at Ashton with grin. He smiled back and pulled out one of the earbuds.
“Sorry about that,” she said.
“Was that your brother?” Ashton asked.
She nodded. “Yeah, that was Drew. He’s a Senior; and the smartest person I know.”
Any further conversation was stopped by the chemistry teacher getting started.
The day consisted of teacher after teacher passing out syllabi and letting the class know what they expected from them. Ashton wasn’t concerned about the school-work. His tutors has taught him most of this stuff already. But by the end of the day he was exhausted by the sheer magnitude of humanity that one building could hold.
The noise in the cafeteria had driven him out to eat a lonely lunch among a strange collection of brightly colored fish in one of the biology classrooms. At least most of the students seemed to like him, and the day was mild enough that no one questioned the fake letterman jacket. Ashton unlocked his bike slowly as teenagers milled around him. He was exhausted and had the music turned almost all the way up so he jumped when someone tapped him on the arm.
Alex grinned at him apologetically as Jake looked on from a bit further back. Ashton cautiously pulled out one earbud and was relieved that, at least outside, the noise was manageable.
“Hey, you kinda disappeared during lunch. I just wanted to make sure you were settling in okay,” she said.
Ashton shrugged. “The cafeteria was...”
“Horrendously bad smelling and weirdly echo-y?” Jake volunteered. Ashton found himself smiling as he nodded.
“Yeah, even we don’t like eating in there,” said Jake. “We usually go up to the roof. There’s a student garden up there. Not a lot of people know about it. Way better than the stupid caf.”
“Anyway, you’re free to join us up there tomorrow, if you like,” said Alex.
“Yeah,” said Ashton, a large smile creeping across his face. “Yeah, that’d be cool.”
And he biked to his new house thinking that the day had been, overall, great.
“See what I mean?” Jake told Alex as they watched Ashton bike down the road.
Alex shrugged. “Small sample size.”
“But he looks completely different when one of us is talking to him. People have pointed that out to us about you and me before.”
“Yeah, but we’re practically family,” Alex pointed out. “You don’t see people telling me and Drew that because we pay more attention when the other talks...”
“Come on, Alex,” Jake complained. “Where’s your sense of adventure! I’m telling you. There’s something about him that reminds me a lot of...you know. Our thing.”
Alex shrugged. “Maybe. But I don’t need him to have mysterious abilities to be friendly. I know from my brother what it’s like to be sensitive to light. Sensitive to sound at a new school? That must suck!”