The hibiscus tea, while putrid in taste even after adding multiple spoonfuls of sugar and honey, is doing wonders for keeping my Reaper urges at bay.
It has been a week and a half since I started drinking the concoction on a daily basis and, while I am still struggling to come to terms with the truth about what I am and the potentially bloody future I have, it has done a great job of keeping me from lashing out at Axel. Then again, the first two of those five days was a weekend and he has spent the other three avoiding me, so that might have helped some. The only issue he seems to be facing is whether or not to ignore me at lunch, seeing as his sister and Katrena have become good friends. I know he doesn’t trust me enough to allow her to eat with us on her own, so that just leaves him to sit there in silence the entire time as the rest of us chatter away.
The day after his attempted kidnapping he made his own attempt at what I believe was an apology, delivering a large gift basket of freshly grown fruits and vegetables. He dropped it off before the sun rose, leaving no note with it, but I knew where it had come from.
A bite into one of the large, green apples had confirmed it as well.
The continuous flow of fresh produce to my house has kept my mother and her fears that I am starving myself at bay. I simply informed her that I had decided to become a vegetarian for obvious health reasons and, after watched me scarf down pound after pound of Nexxus-engineered foods, has stopped asking me if I remembered to eat.
Now, instead of lurking around watching my calorie intake, she smiles as I eat and comments on what a ‘nice young man’ Axel is.
Would she still feel this way about him if she knew he was actually some mythical-like creature that can control plant life and that the only reason he brings me things is so that I won’t eat him and his sister?
God, I sound like a crazy person sometimes.
As far as her suspicions that something else is wrong with me, well, some things will never change. I have come home from school multiple times now to find my room nowhere near as organized as it was before I left but she hasn’t commented on what she is looking for and I refuse to bring it up because I know that conversation will last hours.
Whatever she thinks she is going to find in there, obviously she hasn’t found it yet.
The changes in my diet are finally beginning to have a positive impact on my appearance, fine toning what was once skin and bone. The combination of Axel’s homegrown foods, the energy I have somehow been leeching off my peers, and my newfound hobby of running has helped me into someone who doesn’t even remotely resemble a skeleton.
“Have you given any more thought into trying out for track next month?” Coach Reibart probes for the third time this week, grinning as he checks his stopwatch. He has been timing me ever since the day I busted my ass and, since then, I have managed to shave a full minute off my run. In all actuality, I could easily run the required laps in a fourth of the time I have been doing it in but that would give me away and I am trying not to draw unwanted attention to myself. Until I figure out how I do the weird Reaper things I do, the less attention I get the better. “I know you said it was more of a hobby and less of a career move for you, but I really think it could take you places. I spoke to your college counselor and he told me that you have been looking for a way to add a little spice to your college applications and I think this might be able to help. McCall might not be a large town, but I know a few people from my running days. I could always make a few calls and get a few scouts out here.”
I have been looking into alternative solutions on how to better my potentially gory future should Lillian fail to obtain any useful information on how to contain my killer urges, which has meant reaching out to my college counselor. However, short of jumping the gun and committing myself, I still haven’t come up with a valid solution.
If running can get me into a college in a town even smaller than this one, preferably one with no Nexxus around, it might be something worth considering. I could even have Lillian call around and make sure there were none.
Will I still go crazy if there is nothing around to tempt me?
I feign breathlessness, resting my hands on my thighs so that he doesn’t see how unbothered I am by all this exercise. “When are tryouts? I’m going to warn you though, my grades are pretty unimpressive so you might want to make sure to mention that to anyone you might have already spoken to.”
“Three weeks from today, Wednesday the fifth at six. As long as your grades are passing then I think you should be fine. So, can I expect to see you for tryouts?”
“I’ll consider it.”
He resets the stopwatch. “I sure hope you will. Honestly, Miss Peak, this could take you places. Got a few more laps in you? The class still has far too many left and I really want you to try and push yourself.”
I shrug, stretching my muscles before heading back to the starting line. Coach gives me a nod and I take off, making it a point not to start off too strong.
My first day back from suspension I made the mistake of sprinting full force and ended up on the receiving end of some pretty strange glares, leading me to fake a leg cramp in order to keep up appearances.
My body urges me to speed up, to burn off all this excess energy I have been harboring, but I force myself to remain consistent.
Sometimes holding back takes more effort than letting go.
About halfway through my first lap a small root spring up in front of me and I jump, careful not to let my shoe get tangled in its twisting vines.
My eyes jerk in the direction of the bleachers where Axel spends each class, watching a playful smirk spread across his lips. My heart does tiny back handsprings and I realize that, despite the fact that he has been avoiding me, I still have some feelings for him.
I guess this is what he meant when he said it was odd wanting to get to know me while sometimes thinking he should hate me.
I should have never let him kiss me.
Another root, just as small but thicker than the other, shoots from the ground and I weave, increasing the pace of my stride.
The longer I run the more roots appear, all with the intention of slowing me down or tripping me.
Halfway through my second lap, I give up, jogging up to Coach and making up an excuse about needing to take a break so I don’t burn myself out. He congratulates me on the progress I have already made, once again reminds me of the time and day of track tryouts, and then gives me permission to sit down for a bit while the rest of the class loads up the weight lifting equipment that was dragged onto the field by those who didn’t want to run.
“Still pretending that gym is too stressful to handle?” I joke, taking a seat in the row of bleachers right below where Axel is sitting. “What’s all that about anyway? You have so much on your plate that I don’t think gym would be much of an issue.”
“It wouldn’t, but I have always hated gym. My mother thinks that forcing me to attend school like a normal kid will be good for ‘developing my interpersonal skills’ but, as you have seen, that is far from true. She believes that interacting with kids my age will give me a chance to experience life. I, however, choose to pass the forced time by writing fake doctor’s notes to get out of gym while thinking of ways to let her know that I have no intentions of going to college next year.”
I gasp, shock running through me. The idea of not having my entire future mapped out college-wise makes my skin crawl. I might not have the best future ahead of me but, even knowing that, I have still continued to plan. “None at all?”
“Nope.” He leans back on his elbows, peering up at the ever-present dark clouds that lurk above us. “I considered taking an online class or two in the evening, maybe something that involves Botany, but even those require going into an actual classroom now and then. There are no online colleges that give me the option of never having to deal with another person.”
“Is hating everyone a Nexxus thing or just a you thing?”
“Just a me thing.”
I smile. Of course, it’s just an Axel thing. “So, if you aren’t going to college, then what are you planning to do?”
“Wait for Alyssa to turn eighteen, make sure she has enough support that her powers don’t drive her crazy. So far, she has been handling them much better than I ever did, and I know that things were different back when I was coming into mine, but I need to know that she will be okay. There is too much riding on her success for me to selfishly go running off to live my life all carefree, regardless of what my mother thinks.”
“Wait, I thought you guys got your abilities when you hit puberty? What does her turning eighteen have to do with anything? Besides, it can’t all be that bad. I mean, at least she doesn’t have to worry about turning into something from a horror movie.”
“True.” For he a moment, he almost sounds sympathetic. But this is the real world and he is Axel, so I know what I take for sympathy is probably just him being tired. “There is that.”
“So, how does it work for you guys? I get it, I am technically the enemy and all that lovely shit, but that doesn’t mean I’m not curious.”
“As my mother said, Nexxus begin to come into their powers when they hit puberty. At first, it is simple things, like how Alyssa can manipulate air, but that is nothing compared to what she will be able to do once she turns eighteen. Female Nexxus are rare these days but, once they are in full control of their gift, they grow stronger each year. Alyssa will become one with her element, able to feel it at all times. Her gift is twice as strong as mine and I just want to make sure it doesn’t overwhelm her. If I need a break, I just go inside, but there is air everywhere.”
“Being overwhelmed, is that why you..” I let my voice trail off, remembering how he reacted the last time someone broached the subject of his depressive past.
“Tried to kill myself? Kind of yes and kind of no. Back then I was learning how to use my gifts and, with that, how to do so without drawing much attention to myself. I have always had a short fuse but my father was convinced that if I could control both my power and my temper, I stood a chance at living a normal life. Back then that was all I wanted. I wanted to go to college, date hot chicks, have tons of friends, not have to worry about being exposed, and know that I could take on any Reaper that might come looking for me. Then my father died and none of that seemed important anymore. No matter how hard I tried or where I looked, I couldn’t find a single thing worth living for. One morning I got into an argument with my mother and put my fist through the wall, shattering my knuckles. That night I was done, just done. So I went to the pharmacy, picked up the painkillers that I had been prescribed, took them all, and then drove my car off the bridge. I didn’t know that the pharmacist had suspected that I would do something dumb until the medics pulled me out of the water. She had followed me after I had let while talking to the police, saw my car go over the bridge, and they showed up before any real damage was done.”
“How did he die?” Probing might not be the best idea right now, but this is the first time we have ever spoken without insults and so I plan on making the best of this.
He grins and I know that he is thinking back to all the insane rumors that had circulated after his father had passed.
Cal Browning never ingrained himself into the community the same way that my friends’ parents had. He was never present at the weekly PTA meetings, never volunteered to chaperone school field trips, never showed up for school-related functions, and was rarely seen outside of his house.
This meant that, when he passed away, he was the prime target of rumors that his death had been caused due to his shady dealings with even shadier men.
“The official story, the one that my mother and the police tell when asked, is that he died in a tragic car accident on the way home from a business trip. But-” Axel leans closer to me, scouting the area below us to make sure that no one is around. “-the truth is now even close to that. He was away on business, trying to close on some house he had been trying to sell for months, when he ran into a Reaper. My father had called a friend in the area, the same way he always did whenever he was headed out of McCall, but it turned out to be a setup. The man had traded my father’s life for the life of his family, which didn’t work out well for the man because he killed them all after the man hung up with my father. The Reaper who took him kept him alive for hours, draining him slowly. We found out the next day what had happened when the police showed up to let us know that his car had been found wrapped around a tree. The man and his family were found a few days later and that is when we realized what had happened.”
“Oh,” is all I can manage to squeak out.
What else am I going to say? Axel just confided in me that something like what I will become is the same that that tricked, tortured, and then killed his father. Something like what I will become is the reason why he killed himself.
No wonder why he finds me so revolting.
Thunder roars above our heads, shaking the bleachers.
“Browning! Peak!” Coach shouts at us from his spot on the field. “Get off that thing before you two get struck by lightning and your parents sue me. It is time to head back inside.”
“My doctor said that being shoved into an undersized room filled with sweat soaked people and power tripping coaches could be detrimental to my mental recovery,” Axel shocks back, chuckling lightly.
Coach throws his hands up in surrender, his red darkening with anger. “Getting real sick of your shit, Browning! Get down here now and get inside!”
Axel throws his head back, laughing loudly, and I take a moment to enjoy the never before seen sight. And the sound of his laughter? Well, let’s just say that it makes me wish that I was a completely different kind of person. The kind of person who stood a chance with him.
But I am a reminder of the thing that killed his father.
I am a reminder of the thing that ruined his life.
“This doesn’t make us friends,” he comments as he stands up.
“I didn’t think that it did.”
“Good.” He pauses for a moment, studying my face in a way that makes me feel like I have been stripped bare. “You coming?”