Reluctantly, I pushed him away. “Stop, Chris,” my voice was sterner than my half-hearted shove. “You’ll leave a mark.”
He pulled his lips away from my neck long enough to ask, “So?”
“I have to go to class.”
“No way,” his ministrations were distracting, but this fact was hardwired into my brain: no boy was worth risking all of my hard work.
I pushed harder and slid myself away from him.
“C’mon, Alli, please,” he jutted out his lower lip in a pout that at any other time of day would have melted my resolve.
“Nope. I’m giving a presentation today.” I flipped up the collar of my jacket, hiding the temptation that was the moistened skin of my neck.
Chris slumped against the tree and crossed his arms childishly. “You’re no fun.”
“Remember that the next time you try to ask me out.”
He scowled some more, but I knew it wouldn’t last long.
I stretched my hand across the gap between us and stroked his blond hair where it fell in long strands behind his ear. “I’ll make it up to you. You can come for dinner tonight?”
He took a finger and pointed at his own broad chest. “Grounded, remember?”
“Sneak out?” I suggested hopefully.
“Can’t. My parents figured out my escape routes. They’ve been watching.”
I grimaced in sympathy and fell silent. Turning away, I watched the bare branches of the tree we were sitting under and wished spring would hurry up. I was tired of jackets. Icy wind whipped across my head, destroying any hope I might’ve held for a good hair day. I reached around for my backpack to find a rubber band to use for damage control, but Chris’s soft hand caught my wrist.
I turned and was met with a close up view of bright blue eyes. Then they closed and his lips captured mine in a heated kiss. Too heated, considering the imminence of the school bell. I gave myself over for a brief second, and then pushed him away again.
“You’re going to get me into trouble,” I scolded, jamming an errant auburn hair behind my ear.
Chris waved me off, unrepentant. “Just face it, you know you love me.”
I tried to reduce my giggle to a minimum. “Sure, Chris.”
He didn’t contradict me, or even seem that hurt by my dismissal, which was fine by me. I went back to rummaging in my bag and found a bright pink headband. It would clash horribly with my hair color, which meant it was probably Eve’s, but I was desperate.
Grabbing my bag, I stood.
“Where are you going?” Chris asked, his disappointment turning the words into a whine.
“I’ve got to meet Eve before class,” I answered easily. “I’ve got to ask her something about the presentation.”
“Oh.” He didn’t like it, but he knew better than to argue with me about school. “Call you tomorrow?”
I wiggled my fingers in a wave and then took off in the direction of the trailers. Eve probably wouldn’t be there just yet, and I certainly didn’t want to get there so early, but Chris knew where my history class was held; he’d be suspicious if I walked in any other direction.
I trudged across the grass, which was soggy even though it was too cold for sprinklers. I made it to the trailers which served as one set of classrooms with soaked jean cuffs and curses for the school I’d soon be free of.
To my surprise, Eve was already there, her dark skin shining with the facial glitter she’d used for eye shadow.
She took one look at me and burst out laughing.
“What?” I demanded. I didn’t like being laughed at, but Eve did it with embarrassing frequency. She was lucky she was my best friend or she’d never get away with it.
Eve pointed a delicate finger two feet above me. “What died on your head?”
My hands flew up to cover my hair in alarm. “Is it that bad?” My expression must have been dismayed, because she sobered immediately.
“Come here,” Eve said, and beckoned with two motherly hands.
I came closer and she spun me around by the shoulders. Gently, she pulled out the mismatched headband and started combing out my tangles with her fingers, standing on her tip toes to reach the top.
“Are you presenting today?” There. I’d asked about the project. Now I could honestly say that I hadn’t lied to Chris.
I felt Eve shrug. “I’d better not be. I haven’t finished yet.” She started pulling hanks of my hair together into a tight braid.
“You still have the weekend,” I was trying to be encouraging, but it was a waste. School projects didn’t rank high on Eve’s priority list.
“Not if I can help it,” she said predictably, retying a fresh rubber band on the end of my new braid.
“Thanks,” I said gratefully, and turned around to face her.
“Speaking of which,” she continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “Tyler’s having a party tonight at his house. You in?”
“Tyler?” I felt my forehead crumple. The name of Eve’s constant, if chronically unfaithful boyfriend struck an odd chord. The idea of him hosting a party disturbed me, but I couldn’t pinpoint the reason.
“Yeah, weird, huh?” Eve said, misinterpreting my confusion. “His parents never let him do anything, but I guess they’re out of town.”
I drew my eyebrows in tighter, trying to figure out why her statement bothered me so much. “His grandmother died this week, didn’t she?” I asked slowly. That was probably it: I didn’t like the fact that he hadn’t gone with his parents during a family crisis.
“Did she?” Eve raised a sculpted eyebrow. “Where’d you hear that? Tyler didn’t tell me.” Annoyance was flaring in her eyes over Tyler’s lack of communication.
I tried to smooth things over before she could get too upset. “He’s probably not ready to talk about it yet.”
Where had I heard about Tyler’s family? Probably just from random gossip in the cafeteria. It would be an acceptable explanation, except that I made a habit of avoiding the overcrowded lunch room. I pushed the frustrating puzzle aside; I was tired of trying to figure out where I’d heard morbid news.
“You’re right,” Eve replied, but I could tell from her tone that she didn’t buy it any more than I did. “Anyway, are you comin’ tonight?”
I hesitated, worrying my lip between my teeth.
Eve threw up her hands in exasperation. “Come on, you can’t possibly have that much homework.”
“It’s not that.”
“It’s not. Chris can’t go out tonight, and I don’t know if I want to go alone.”
Eve’s hands migrated to her hips in an indignant pose. “What am I, a ghost? You won’t be alone, you’ll be with me.”
“You know what I mean. Besides, with Tyler around, you’ll ditch me the first chance you get.”
“Will not,” she contradicted, but her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Look, don’t worry about having a date. There will be plenty of other guys there willing to keep you company.”
I made a noncommittal noise and put a finger to my chin, pretending to consider. I’d already made up my mind, but I drew out the thinking process long enough to make Eve squirm impatiently.
“All right,” I finally conceded. “I’ll go. Will you pick me up?”
“Yeah, sure, you’re on the way,” she smiled excitedly and then the expression slipped away. Ominously, she pointed over my shoulder.
I followed her gaze and saw our teacher, Mr. Silvey, coming towards the trailers from the direction of the offices, his arms loaded down with books. Mr. Silvey was young, barely on the wrong side of thirty, and very easy on the eyes. That was fortunate, since he’d already perfected the talent of being able to send students to sleep with his slow, droning voice. He may have been young, but he acted far too much like a single-minded grandpa in the classroom.
“Hello, Allison, Evelyn,” he called when he was within hearing distance, his voice much more casual outside of a lecture.
On the first day of school, he’d invited the class to tell him the name we wanted to be called for the rest of the year. By the time he’d reached my name on the roll sheet, the offered nicknames had become so outlandish that he’d recanted his request. It was about then that he’d shifted from being a potentially fun teacher into the miserly professor that he now was.
Eve ignored him, but I gave Mr. Silvey a wave that just barely passed as politely enthusiastic. He didn’t see the gesture since he was too busy trying to navigate the wet grass without slipping or dropping his books. Feeling Eve’s uncomprehending disdain at my shoulder, I closed the gap between us and went to help him.
“Here,” I offered, grabbing some of the tomes before their weight could topple him.
“Thank you,” he said, honestly grateful.
“No problem,” I answered, leading the way up the ramp toward the classroom door.
“You ready for today?” he asked conversationally, more comfortable with a one-on-one encounter than I was.
“Yep,” I replied shortly. I was tired of talking about my looming presentation.
We reached the door and I pulled it open for him. Mr. Silvey went past the threshold, but stopped there, waiting for me to follow with the rest of his belongings. I turned, pleading with Eve, making my eyes as desperate as possible.
Eve gave me a hard, petulant stare, but relented just before my pause in the doorway became awkward. She walked up the ramp and I mouthed a heart-felt “Thank you.”
Her gaze was still stiff, reluctant to enter the room before she absolutely had to, but she nodded in acknowledgement. I’d have to come up with a way to thank her for saving me later.
For now though, I settled for giving her a huge smile and following Mr. Silvey inside, eager to get the rest of the day over with.
I stifled an amused giggle and pulled the front door shut behind me. No matter how quiet I tried to be, my father always knew when I’d come home. It was like he sensed my presence; not a very easy trait to get around on the few occasions I thought of sneaking out of the house.
I tossed my backpack on the couch as I made my way through the spacious living room and into the kitchen. As usual, I found my dad in there, working busily over a large pot on the stove. It was always a relief to see how much he looked like me: same red hair, same lanky build. My mother was shorter and bright blond. If it was just me and her in the house, I would have thought I’d been adopted.
Warm, aromatic air filled the room and thawed my wind-chilled skin. I felt immeasurably comfortable in the familiar environment, with no one around me to watch and judge. I pulled off my suddenly too heavy jacket and draped it over a dining chair before pulling myself up on the counter next to Dad.
“Hey,” I greeted him warmly.
“Hello, how are you today?” he responded, turning to me with his ever-present smile and slightly hooked nose, the one thing I was glad I hadn’t inherited from him.
I couldn’t help but smile back. Dad never asked about school things first. He worried about me, and left the scholarship concerns to Mom.
“Pretty good,” I answered. “What’s that?” I indicated the pot he was slaving over.
“Soup,” he dipped a silver spoon inside and shoved some of the broth in my face. “Taste.”
I stared cross-eyed at the offered spoon, looking dubiously at the rust colored liquid and bright orange carrot floating in it. “What’s in it?” I asked cautiously.
Dad understood the source of my concern and didn’t waste time mentioning the obvious vegetable. “It’s just tomato juice in the chicken broth. Trust me, it’s good.”
If I’d trusted him any less, I wouldn’t have put something with such an odd color into my mouth. As it was, I opened my mouth obediently. “You’re right,” I mumbled, taking the food and trying to speak around its heat. “It’s good.”
“Told you,” he put the lid back on the pot and started for the refrigerator. “Want to help me with dessert?”
“I’ll help you eat dessert,” I said with a mischievous smile. Then I remembered my plans and I backtracked. “Well, later, anyway. I’m going out tonight.”
Dad put down the packet of chocolate chips he’d pulled out of the fridge and looked at me. “Where are you going?”
It was easy to answer him. The question was a simple inquiry, not a demand or a threat with do-this-first strings attached. “To a party with Eve.”
“Oh,” I could see him accessing the situation, working out whether or not my answer was an acceptable destination. It was the one problem with being an only child: over protective parents. “Okay,” he relented after only a brief time of contemplation. It was good to be trusted. Though I liked to test the waters sometimes, I was careful not to ruin that. “Don’t be out too late.”
This statement was a demand, but with Eve driving it would be impossible to make promises unless I planned on finding another ride home. “I’ll try.”
He raised his eyebrows at me and pointed a stern finger in warning, but accepted my answer with a nod.
I jumped down from the counter. “Better go get ready.” Better get out of here before he changed his mind.
Being the only male in the house, he didn’t question my timing. Dad had learned long ago to accept long and involved prep times. “Have fun,” he told me absently, turning back to the food on the counter, something he understood much better than preening teenage girls.
I kissed him lightly on the cheek and stole a handful of his chocolate chips on the way out of the kitchen.
I passed my backpack on the way to the stairs, but left it decisively on the couch. I was done with school right now and tired of the constant push for good grades. This weekend would be for me for once, not my books.
My room was the first one off of the landing, closest to the bathroom. A closet separated the space between me and the master bedroom at the other end of the hall, and faced an office space on the opposite wall. Inside, my room was simple. It had a desk, a bed, a dresser, and a solitary bookshelf, but I wasn’t in it enough to care about the sparse furnishings. Unlike the rest of the colorfully decorated house, my space was dull, the only splash of color my bright yellow comforter among the brown wood of the furniture and plain white walls. It perfectly matched the less outgoing aspects of my no-nonsense personality.
I turned on a lamp to ward off the already dimming light, then shoved the pieces of chocolate into my mouth and slowly chewed them while I stared listlessly into my closet. Now that I was at home and comfortable, the prospect of going out tonight wasn’t as appealing. As a rule, I didn’t generally go for parties, they were too loud and too prone to cops and without a solid date, the boys tonight would seem more like vultures. Oh well. I’d already promised Eve, so there wasn’t much point in complaining about it now.
I flipped through my hung up clothes, looking for inspiration, but nothing interested me. It was all the same: boring, dark colored winter clothes and lighter dresses and skirts that I couldn’t wear again for another couple of months. With a sigh, I slid the door back on its track and flopped down on my bed. Contrary to my father’s belief, I didn’t actually need all that long to get dressed. I didn’t have to worry about my wardrobe quite yet.
Staring up at the ceiling, I felt my eyes getting heavy. I reached around my head and slowly undid the braid Eve had put in my hair so I could relax. I wasn’t big on napping, but Friday afternoons were always an exception. After a long week, all I ever wanted to do was pass out for a few hours. Slowly, I let my eyes drift closed, the sounds of Dad clattering around in the kitchen a familiar lullaby to my overcrowded senses.
I knew that I’d succeeded in falling asleep because I knew that I was dreaming. There was no other explanation for the strange scene that met me. I didn’t know anyone with young children, much less ones that were sick. It was a disturbing thing to be dreaming about.
I was hovering, looking down at a hospital room, too cheerily decorated to belong anywhere but in a children’s ward. And there was the child, a cancer victim, sleeping restlessly in the singular bed. Her hair was missing, but she was still obviously female, her sweet disposition thankfully not destroyed by chemotherapy. Standing near the door were her parents, sleep deprived and haggard, talking to an equally grim doctor. If I’d known how to wake myself up, I would have. I had a feeling I didn’t want to hear what was coming next.
“Tried everything,” the doctor’s words floated up to me, not distant like in most dreams, but vividly and uncomfortably clear.
The woman that was the girl’s mother visibly shrank. She buried her head against her husband’s shoulder, hiding away from the news. Her husband held her, his white knuckles against her body the only physical indication that he was as upset as she was. His face was stony as he kept eye contact with the doctor.
“I don’t think there’s anything else we can do, she’s just not responding to treatments,” the doctor’s voice was grave, but also compassionate. He didn’t like to give this kind of news, but he didn’t want to delude the parents either.
The father’s expression didn’t change. “Isn’t there anything? Something experimental maybe?”
The doctor was shaking his head before the sentence was finished.
I looked away from them, uncomfortable in the face of their pain. The girl was sleeping more peacefully now. The way things were looking, it didn’t seem like she was going to have many more chances to wake up. More and more, I was wishing that I could.
Then I saw it: a flash of silvery light in the corner across from the parents. It looked like the sun reflecting off of a mirror in two twin shafts, except there were no mirrors in this room. They hovered, nearly level with the girl, and then they shifted position so that now they were wings, and they flew out of the open window in a rush of wind that no one else seemed to notice. No one but the girl. She still didn’t wake, but I watched her angelic face smile contentedly, shifting what looked like fine pink glitter dusted onto her cheekbones.
Finally, I came back into consciousness, gasping and disoriented since now I was the one in the bed. I sat upright, eager to shake off the feeling that, even momentarily, I had occupied the girl’s position. Crossing my arms over my chest, I shuddered, the timbre of the dream still haunting. This wasn’t the first dream I’d had about death, but that didn’t make it any easier to shake off.
A knock sounded on my door, sounding urgent. I realized then that it was the knocking that had woken me up. Thank God.
“Yeah?” I asked, my voice shaky, but not from grogginess.
The door opened to reveal my mother, one hand on the knob, the other carrying the phone. “It’s Eve,” she held the phone out to me, but then took in my appearance and retracted it slightly. “Do you want me to tell her you’ll call back?”
Wordlessly, I shook my head and stuck my hand out, palm up. Mom came inside and gave me the phone, but didn’t go back out. If I wasn’t so distracted, I might have been concerned about my privacy, but now I let her stand over by my desk without objecting.
“Hello,” I said blankly into the phone, rubbing my eyes with my free hand. The sleep was gradually fading away, but it was going to take more than rubbing to wipe away the image of the smiling little girl.
Eve immediately caught on to my tone, “You’re sleeping?” she asked in exasperation. “I was about to come and get you. You wouldn’t answer your phone.”
For the first time, I took in my surroundings. The light outside the window had faded, turning the glass into a black mirror. I watched my own face in it, but I didn’t look as distraught as I felt, just bedraggled.
“Are you at least ready?”
I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t find the energy yet. “Umm,” I replied lamely.
Eve’s sigh rattled static over the ear piece. “Do you still want to go?”
I loved her for giving me the option, but her disappointment made my mind up for me. “I’m going,” I swung my legs over the side of the bed and tried to feign excitement. “Give me...ten minutes.”
“Can do,” Eve said, her voice brightening. “See you soon.”
“Yeah,” I confirmed, and then hung up the phone before my falsely cheery voice could falter.
I faced my mother, who was doing a very good job of being invisible while sitting in my desk chair.
“Hi,” I told her, stretching my arms in a wide arc above my head.
“You okay?” she asked, surprising me.
I gave her an inquisitive look and she shrugged. “You don’t usually sleep for so long.”
“Long week,” I said, standing up. “I’m okay.”
I went back to my previous position in front of my closet, but the prospects didn’t look any better now than they had before. The difference was that now I was kind of looking forward to the party. Anything to get my mind off of my nap.
“Your dad told me about the party,” Mom said to my back.
Uh oh. “It’s not far,” I offered in an attempt at damage control. “And I already told Dad I wouldn’t stay late.”
She didn’t take the bait. “Chris isn’t going with you is he?”
I turned, brandishing a black long-sleeved shirt. “Why?” As if I really had to ask. Mom loved Eve like a daughter, but my current choice in boys was not to her taste.
She shrugged again, a little too casually. “Just wondering.”
I sighed and gave in. “No, he won’t be there.”
“Alli,” she started in the tone that I knew meant trouble.
“Don’t,” I countered.
“I’m just not very fond of him, that’s all.”
She didn’t have a concrete answer, or at least not one she was willing to share with me. That was fine. If she didn’t elaborate, I didn’t have to seriously listen to her doubts.
“Mom,” I tried, going for innocence. “You have to trust me.”
For the first time, I wanted to explain to her that she didn’t have to worry because Chris wasn’t serious for me. I’d known for a long time that we’d never amount to anything long lasting and his less than serious behavior usually made me think he agreed. But for now, he was fun, and I did like him, and admitting otherwise to my mother felt too much like a failure.
“I trust you,” she emphasized. I wondered if she’d still trust me if she knew that I’d been the one to encourage him to sneak out, but I wasn’t going to enlighten her and risk my cherished status.
“Then don’t worry. Especially tonight. I promise he’s not coming.”
Mom looked mollified, but I knew it wouldn’t last.
I went back to my closet, searching for bottoms to go with my shirt, and came up with a pair of jet black jeans. I held the outfit up to her. “What do you think?”
She eyed them objectively before declaring, “Morbid, but at least it’s not trashy.”
I rolled my eyes and she stood up. “I’ll let you change. Be careful tonight, okay? No drinking.”
“C’mon, Mom, we’re all underage,” I tried to sound shocked at the idea of drinking at a party, but I couldn’t quite manage it. I was one of the younger seniors in my class, still seventeen, but I knew plenty of eighteen-year-olds. Most of us would be off to supervisor-free college soon enough, and many were getting a head start.
Mom scoffed like she’d been to one too many ‘innocent’ parties in her own right. “Just don’t do it.”
“I won’t,” I assured her firmly.
“Good,” she reached the door and waved before stepping out. “Have fun.”
She shut the door behind her and I began the mad scramble to get ready before Eve showed up. It really didn’t take me that long to dress, the only problem was my eyes. I’d gone to sleep without taking off the day’s makeup, and now I looked like a raccoon. By the time I was finished cleaning up, Eve was honking for me in the driveway. I grimaced, but wasn’t too put out that I couldn’t reapply cosmetics. I took a last look at my new appearance and realized that Mom was right: I did look ready for a funeral. But I couldn’t bring myself to change. No amount of rushing could push the dream out of my head and right now, the black suited my mood. It was a tribute to the little girl, real or not.
Desperate now to escape, I ran a brush through my hair one last time and then hurried downstairs, calling a quick goodbye to my parents as I rushed out the door.
“Hey,” I was waving before I’d even pulled Eve’s car door open.
She surveyed me as I sat down and buckled, taking in my look to make sure I wasn’t still half asleep. Eve was dressed as my opposite, wearing a bright neon blue that almost hurt to look at, but that complemented her dark skin tone.
We didn’t talk much on the way; Tyler’s house was close enough that there wasn’t very much time for talking anyway. As we came to his street, I started to hear the loud, thumping music, just begging for a visit from the cops. We parked around the corner to avoid the huge amount of traffic blocking the street in front of the house.
“Fun,” I commented dryly. Suddenly, not even the promise of a distraction seemed worth going through with this.
“It’s great!” Eve gushed, not reading my sarcasm. “I had no idea Tyler had it in him. His parents should go away more often.”
I stepped out of the car and wrapped my arms protectively over my chest. It was cold, and in my haste, I’d forgotten to grab a jacket. “Let’s go,” I called over my shoulder. Overwhelming or not, at least the inside of the house would be warm.
“There are so many people,” Eve said, awed, as we passed the numerous parked cars.
“You said it yourself,” I pointed out, spitting the words through chattering teeth. “How often does Tyler have parties?”
“Yeah,” she agreed reluctantly. “I hope I can even find him in all this mess.”
“Don’t worry, he’ll be looking for you too.” Or he would be if he were smart. How Eve could put up with Tyler’s less than loyal behavior was beyond me, but if he tried something tonight, I wouldn’t let him get away with it. Eve was too excited to have her mood so callously smashed.
“You’re right,” she said, a little too eager to hang on to my assurances.
I placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder and then took advantage of her large jacket to stick my freezing fingers in her pocket.
Tyler’s house was large, and already the yard was littered with trash and people. The music was deafening from so close, its bass line pounding deep inside my skull and promising a headache later. We walked across the lawn and underneath the large bare tree at its center. As we passed it, I felt something soft fall onto my hair. Irritated, I looked up, ready to find some party-goer throwing who knew what out of the tree at anyone who walked too close. There was no one there; the view of the moon through the leafless branches was uninterrupted. Curious, I patted at the top of my head, but I didn’t feel anything unusual. When I pulled my hand away to look at it, there was no evidence of anything foreign on my head.
“What’s wrong?” Eve had to shout to be heard.
I looked at her and saw that I’d inadvertently pulled us to a stop. “You didn’t feel anything?” I asked stupidly.
Luckily, she didn’t hear my odd question. “You okay?”
I nodded and we kept walking, Eve now dragging me along by the hand I had shoved in her pocket.
Still disgruntled, I looked back into the tree, determined to find the source of that feather-light touch. It had been the oddest thing, but almost pleasant, like a ladybug landing on an open palm, and I wanted to know what had caused it. Or maybe I just wanted proof that I wasn’t going crazy. Dreams like today’s had a tendency to make me question my own sanity.
This time, with Eve pulling me away and the branches blocking out the reflection of the moon, I saw something that caused my stomach to plunge and my pulse to rise to a gallop. There, in the seemingly empty tree, were two shafts of silver light, spread wide in an imitation of wings, hovering over me.