Angels in the Dust (Book 1)

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13: Alli

My alarm clock tore me painfully from sleep. I hit the snooze button by habit, and pulled the covers tighter over my head. I was barely awake and already I could feel that the skin under my eyes was swollen, stretched taut and most likely discolored.

Just that small bit of consciousness was enough to let memories of last night leak in. I laid there contemplating it, turning not just Jadin's actions but mine own over in my head. I'd helped him once, but I had no idea how I could possibly keep it up. I must have been seriously addled to even think about going outside in the first place. But of course, that was exactly what had happened. I'd been terrified by that dream. Just the thought of it now sent a chill up my spine. It had seemed so real. Was it any wonder that my next move had been to try and do some good after taking part in such a tragedy?

The alarm beeped again, interrupting my excuses. Why didn't matter anyway. I wasn't sorry I'd done it. Jadin had needed help, and had allowed me to give it to him. He'd trusted me.

Groaning in protest, I forced my body to first unfold and then stand up. The only solution was caffeine. Without it, I would never even resemble a human being today.

It didn't take me long to find the note on my desk. It was sitting there innocently, next to my picture frame, but it made my stomach lurch. Had Jadin been in here while I was sleeping? Had he left already, with no more explanation than a lousy note? I picked it up, ready to regret all of my sleepy thoughts.

It was from my mother, which did not bode any better

We need to talk, it read. Bring him back with you after school.

A distressed sound made its way out of my throat. At least she hadn't been angry enough to wake me up. That was a good sign. Getting Jadin to listen to me though…that was liable to prove impossible.

It was going to be a very, very long day.

Which meant there was no point in delaying it any further.

Usually, I avoided the lower floor on school mornings until I was ready to leave. Today though, because normal was a concept that I was quickly losing touch with, I put my bathrobe on and padded downstairs. I knew by the time that my mom had already left, but I needed to see if Jadin was still there. If he was, I needed to hurry. If he woke up alone, he was likely to bolt like a frightened rabbit. Not much point in letting that happen, since recent habit suggested he'd only end up back at my front door--a magnet polarized to revolve around me. At least that meant the terms of my mother's note were more likely to be fulfilled.

I took the last stair and peered into the living room as casually as I could. I didn't know what I'd expected to find. Part of me must have thought that he would be gone already in spite of my rush. He had a tendency to appear as if he'd been standing there for hours before you'd seen him, so I didn't see why his disappearing would be any different. He was there though, curled under a heap of blankets in an awkward position forced on him by the combination of his long frame and the length of our couch. I knew I'd crossed from informal inspection to outright staring, but I didn't try to stop myself.

Finally, after all of the strange encounters and the mishaps caused by his difficult-to-read personality, Jadin looked nothing less than normal. With those disturbing, penetrating eyes closed and his face snuggled against his arm, he was just another person. He wasn't trying to hold himself back in ways that made him appear pained. Certainly he wasn't the nightmare specter I kept imagining him to be. It was a reassuring vision--a spot of calm in all of the mystery that surrounded him.

Satisfied, I moved away and into the kitchen. I could deal with human problems. I'd had plenty of practice.

I put some frozen waffles in the toaster, then went straight for the coffee my mom had left waiting in the pot. As if it would do any real good; already I could feel my eyelids pulling downward, begging for a sleep that was actually restful. It felt as if I hadn't really slept since before the party, and the strain was starting to get to me. I needed a break. I was very tired of fighting to uphold the 'perfect child' façade I'd worked so hard on.

I was leaning against the kitchen counter, pondering less and less plausible excuses for getting out of school when Jadin started making noises from the living room: groans that sounded painful. Well aware of his sickness yesterday, if not the specifics, I didn't hesitate to go and check on him.

When I got back to the other room he was still sleeping, but it was no longer peaceful. He was roiling in the blankets, in danger of falling off of the couch in the grip of some nightmare. I wondered with despair if I had looked anything like that last night and decided that the answer was probably no. Horrifying as it had been, I had been complicit in that dream. Jadin obviously was not. I reached out to gently shake his shoulder. The gesture was meant to be helpful, but mostly I just didn't want to be reminded of my own bad night. Jadin opened his eyes immediately, as if the touch of a feather could have woken him. It took him a moment to focus; at first he only stared at me as if my face was still part of his bad dream. Then he sat up, shrugging his shoulder to dislodge my hand in an unconscious motion. He looked around, accessing his surroundings. I could practically see the memory of how he'd gotten here scrolling across his face. At last his eyes came back to rest on me and he hung his head.

"Hi," he said gruffly, then cleared his throat. He ran his tongue across his teeth and crinkled his face in revulsion.

"Good morning," my voice was barely more awake than his, but I tried to put some cheer into it.

He groaned again, a much less urgent sound than before, and rubbed tensely at the back of his neck.

"I'm sorry," I said, remembering his uncomfortable sleeping arrangement. "The couch gets kind of cramped, I know. I've paid for enough spontaneous naps."

"No more apologies," he said, completely ignoring my attempt at humor and still not catching my eye. "Not from you."

I rolled my eyes to the ceiling. If I hung around Jadin much longer, 'ambiguous' was going to become my least favorite adjective.

From the kitchen, the toaster popped, blessing me with a change of subject. "Are you hungry? Do you want breakfast?"

"Food would be good," he conceded, but he didn't sound happy about the prospect.

"Follow me," I said and went back to the kitchen to see if he would. I knew he would. He'd been following me ever since I'd first seen him.

I pulled butter out of the refrigerator and then paused, remembering my 'guest-manners.' "Do you want some milk?" I called. "Or we have orange juice or coffee…"

"Water's fine," Jadin said, making me jump at his proximity.

"You have got to stop that," I accused. The charm had worn out of that particular trick.

"What?" he asked, totally oblivious.

"Popping in and out like that. You're so quiet. Like a ghost. It's freaking me out."

He paused for a split second, looking confused underneath his rumpled bed-head. Then a smile broke out across his mouth. It wasn't huge, or even particularly inviting. But it was the first one he'd shown me that I was sure was fueled purely by amusement. No sarcasm involved. He actually chuckled a little as he turned to the sink. "I'll try to work on that."

With his back to me, he turned the faucet on and cupped his hand under the stream. He brought the water to his mouth in greedy gulps, splashing the front of his shirt.

"We have glasses, you know." In fact I'd been moving to the cabinet, ready to play host.

Jadin turned, a spare droplet of water emphasizing the place where his lips became a smirk. "First a bed, then actual glasses. You're going to spoil me."

I grinned back. "Not as spoiled as my mother would like to make you," I rolled my eyes to show that I was teasing, but it was too late. Jadin had shut off, his defenses snapping back into position like a rubber band that had stretched too far.

"What?" he asked, all the warmth sucked out of his voice.

I was imagining the rabbit again, bolting for cover in the bushes. I wanted to slap myself. He'd fooled me into getting too comfortable too fast. Head down, I finally retrieved the waffles, spreading butter methodically over each one. I could feel Jadin's eyes on me, willing an explanation to come tumbling out of my mouth. Slowly, I obliged, picking my words with care. I didn't want him to run, but I liked the heat of that stare even less.

"My mom…" It was no use, there was no way the explanation wouldn't insult him. I'd known that my mom had had her social worker eyes on yesterday when she'd made me bring Jadin inside. The note had only confirmed my suspicions. She did this sometimes: found cases that particularly affected her and brought the homeless children home temporarily. Usually they were younger, but I knew her pattern all too well. "She's a social worker," I admitted, waiting for the words to inflame his sensibilities.

There was only silence. I looked up, ready to find indignation. Oddly, there was just confusion.

I wasn't delicate enough for this conversation. Was he really going to make me say it? "She takes care of kids--of people--….like you."

"Like me?"

"You know…minors who are abused or…" I said, grappling for words, "without homes."

"Oh. That." Contrary to my fear, the atmosphere relaxed the tiniest bit. "I do seem to have a problem with that, don't I?" He was back to irony. How sad.

"Look," I said, putting down my knife in what I hoped was a no-nonsense manner. "All I'm saying is that she's going to want to help. It's her thing. She wants you to come back after school today." I waited, but he didn't respond. He didn't protest either. "Please?" I tried, my voice small, "Please come back."

Unreadable emotion flashed behind his eyes. He was quiet, not fuming for once, but thinking. "She'll want me to stay, won't she?" His tone was so flat I didn't know if that was supposed to be a good thing or a bad one.

I took the safe route and stayed quiet. The answer to that question was a resounding yes, if I knew my mother at all, but I didn't dare say it. He kept thinking long enough that I picked the knife back up to finish with the butter.

"Would you want me to stay?" he finally asked, throwing me totally off guard.

"Me?" I replied lamely.

"Why not? You'd have to live with me."

A dismayed look must have crossed my face because he chuckled softly. "I know," he continued. "Not exactly the happiest prospect."

I couldn't help but smile guiltily. "Not really."

For a brief instant there was no tension in the air. We simply smiled like friends sharing an inside joke. "Come back okay? Stay a while if you have to. I promise to keep my pointed comments to a minimum." I held out a waffle as a peace offering.

Jadin took it gingerly, resting it on his fingertips instead of in his palm.

"Are you coming to school with me?" I asked.

"Ugh," he made a disgusted noise and rolled his eyes: the universal teenage reaction to the 's' word. He nodded anyway. "Yes, I'll come with you."

"Let me get ready. You can use the shower if you want. I'll wait."

He rubbed his fingers through his hair with the same face he'd used when he'd inspected his teeth. "That would be nice."

"Okay," I pulled myself away from the counter and started to leave, breakfast in hand. "Twenty minutes."

"Okay," he agreed, pulling a small piece from his own breakfast and inspecting it.

I went up the stairs with a puzzled smile on my face. Puzzled, but undeniably pleasant.

The good feeling didn't last for long. Since the subject was Jadin, I shouldn't have been surprised.

It took me until after lunch to realize that Jadin's excuse of a different schedule than mine was no reason for him to immediately run to the other side of campus for first period. When he wasn't in history class--much to poor Mr. Silvey's confusion--I knew that he'd simply ditched me. And now, I thought angrily as I made my way back home after school, if he wasn't waiting outside my house like a stray puppy I would never forgive him.

I took a deep breath and hoisted my heavy backpack more comfortably on my shoulder. Why did I even care? I answered my own question fairly quickly: because we'd made an agreement. I'd thought we'd come to some kind of warped understanding this morning, and not just about him coming back this afternoon. I'd allowed myself to believe that a few smiles could wipe away the residue of the weird encounters between us. But even if that part was in my head, the least he could do was follow through and be there after all he'd put me through.

My efforts to readjust the strap were interrupted by a hand tugging at my bag from behind.

"I'll get that for you," Chris's voice offered.

Instinctively, I pulled the strap tighter. "It's okay. I've got it," I said, closing him off without stopping to wonder why.

He came up beside me, all smiles and gleaming charm. Usually, it would have been enough to make me smile back, but as I gave him a superficial greeting, I realized that I was still annoyed with him for yesterday. To be honest, I'd been a bit annoyed ever since he'd treated my accident so flippantly. I hadn't wanted to be embarrassingly lavished over, but I did wish that his biggest concern hadn't been using me to get out of a grounding. I'd been putting those feelings off, but today I was tired and frustrated and fed up with hiding things.

"What are you doing this afternoon?" he insisted, despite the fact that my body language was probably hostile.

"Homework," I answered shortly. "I have a few projects to get started on."

"I could help you," he offered, running a finger down my arm.

I gave him a genuine laugh. "Chris, when was the last time you actually helped me with work?"

"I meant I could help distract you," he gave me a small peck, but I didn't lean into it.

"Not tonight," I answered, and he pulled away ever so slightly.

We walked on quietly, the tension building between us uncomfortably. Mostly that was my fault, I knew. He wasn't used to seeing me so distracted or short with him. I normally offered Chris my fun side--the one that I habitually suppressed in favor of strong academics--and got fun back in return. Feeling guilty, I was just about to make an attempt at alleviating the mood when Chris said, tone veiled and suspicious:

"Is that guy still at your house?"

I didn't have to ask who he meant, but I had no clue why the idea had occurred to him. "What makes you ask that?"

"I don't know. Sometimes your mom brings in strays." I winced, hearing him echo my own bitter description of Jadin, and my guilt increased.

We could see my house by now, as well as the unoccupied curb across the street. There was no point in denying the disappointment the sight caused.

All I wanted was to gently extricate myself from Chris before he sensed the reason behind my mood and things escalated.

But he continued. "Besides, I can't figure out another reason for you to be avoiding me." Too late.

I scoffed at the ridiculousness of his implication. He'd found the source, but his assumptions were way off. "Trust me, I can think of several other reasons that don't include other boys." So much for gentle.

"Like what?" he asked resentfully.

"Never mind." It was too late to explain about the accident and if I cited his behavior yesterday as a factor, he would only think his theory was confirmed. Sometimes he was so impossible. "Look, I'm tired," I said, stating the obvious as an excuse. "I'm sorry. Can we talk later?"

He backed off with an indignant huff. "Fine. Just let me know when you want me around."

With that attitude, not any time soon. I could have said it aloud, but I kept it to myself to avoid a breakup-worthy argument. Holding back wasn't easy.

I let him walk off, looked around the house again for signs of Jadin, and then went inside more annoyed than ever.

I tossed my backpack on the couch and threw myself after it. Why I let these boys get to me like this, I would never know. Apparently, I was full of buttons that everyone knew how to push and I didn't know how to hide.

"Bad day?"

The sardonic tone made me sit bolt upright in surprise.

"Jadin," I gasped, heart pounding. "What you are doing here?"

He shrugged nonchalantly. I'd lent him a faded windbreaker from the Goodwill pile this morning and the nylon rubbed noisily against itself with the motion. "You told me to come back," he said simply.

I gave him my best death stare. "You know what I mean. How did you get in here?"

He came to stand in front of me. "Your dad let me in."

"He did?"

Jadin nodded, sitting down on the coffee table. "I told him I was a friend of yours and that I needed to see your mom." He paused, gauging my reaction. "Actually, I think it was the latter one that did it."

I didn't answer. I was too busy recovering my wits. "I thought we agreed you wouldn't scare me like that anymore."

He shrugged again. "I was right here," he gestured noncommittally around the room.

I couldn't argue. This time it wasn't his fault I'd been unobservant.

He was still staring at me, so I stared right back as my heart slowed down. I still thought of him as an anomaly, so I couldn't get over how foreign he looked in my living room. The more comfortable he was the worse it got. The washed out green of the jacket breaking up all of that black helped, though. The color made him look like he came from this era and not out of a black and white movie.

"You look better," I remarked, commenting not just on my personal observations, but the fact that he no longer looked so gaunt and sickly.

"I feel…better," he admitted unwillingly. He immediately changed the subject, taking the attention away from him. "So," he repeated. "Bad day?"

"No," I said sarcastically, "it was a great day. Started off right when you ditched me."

He snickered in that arrogant way I was coming to hate. "As if my being there would have made it a better day."

I closed my eyes in aggravation, refusing to admit that he was probably right. Again. Not that it mattered anymore. I wouldn't tell him, but having him here where he said he'd be was enough.

"Are you even supposed to be at school?" I asked skeptically.

"Not exactly. Don't worry, I don't plan to repeat the experience."

"Of course not," I muttered, grabbing the T.V. controller. I flipped it on, hoping the noise would give us an excuse to quit talking.

Jadin watched the flickering screen for a few moments and then turned away, uninterested. He watched me instead, still studying.

"Mom will be home in an hour or so," I said, stubbornly watching the news channel my dad must have left on. What I wanted to do was go upstairs and work off the last of my sour mood in solitude. But I didn't want to leave Jadin alone, and I didn't want to risk him following me.

He let me stare at the sceen, but I could tell that he wasn't in the mood to stay quiet. I looked back, indulging him because it was so difficult to get him to talk when he didn't want to.

"May I ask you a question?" he asked immediately.

I nodded, giving in to his curious tone.

"What do you see in him?"

"What?" I asked, too shocked to be offended.

"Your boyfriend. I saw you fighting. And yesterday didn't look so good either. I'm just trying to understand it."

"Were you watching me?" It was amazing, the combination of anger and embarrassment that could run through you when you realized that what you thought was a private moment wasn't.

"I was waiting for you to come home," he replied, not denying my accusation. "I saw through the window. You don't look happy around him."

It was the most innocent statement, with no malice behind it whatsoever. When it came to the moments he had witnessed, he was even correct. But I was in no mood to logically analyze my relationship. Now was a very dangerous time to do that. I had never seen curiosity with worse timing.

"That's none of your business."

"I know. I've just been wondering. You're very different."

"Different doesn't always matter." I said defensively. "Chris is sweet and funny and he makes me feel good."

"You stay with him because he makes you feel good?" Jadin asked as if he'd never heard of such a thing.

"It's not such an uncommon reason." He was still looking at me quizzically, so I elaborated: "Sometimes after a long day, after stress, you just need someone you can be loose with."

"I see. So you're using him." This of all things seemed to make sense to him. He nodded reassuringly to himself.

"I am not." I couldn't even think of words to defend myself anymore. He would just twist anything I said. I was sorry I'd started him talking.

Deliberately, I tuned him out, fuming at the television.

What I saw there didn't make things any better. In fact, it was enough to drive my petty complaints about boys entirely out of my mind. The reporter on screen was standing far away from the scene of the crash, but there was no mistaking the vehicle, or the sense of familiarity that ran through me. I'd seen it before. I felt the blood drain from my face as images from that dream, never far from my mind today, flashed through my head. I'd had my suspicions, but never confirmation that those dreams made me so sick because they were real.

Fatal Bus Crash Kills 11 the headline read.

Anger utterly demolished by fear, I fled for the stairs, away from the T.V., but there was no way to hide from the images in my own mind.

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