Angels in the Dust (Book 1)

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20: Alli

At first I could only stand there, shocked.

I'd seen it coming of course, I'd closed my eyes and waited for it. But I hadn't really believed he'd do it, not Jadin, who could barely touch my hand.

He was touching me now though, his mouth enveloping mine, his hand on my waist. He held me firmly, as if he was afraid I'd get away. He made a small noise in his throat, soft but passionate. I was overwhelmed by the cleanness of him, his smell and taste; it was like his brand new clothes, unimprinted and untainted. I gave in unquestioningly, eagerly reciprocating. A curious sensation tickled down my back, like he was tracing a fingernail across my shoulder blades. For a moment, I thought it started to press, and the sharpness nearly distracted me.

But I didn't want to be distracted.

This moment was like the small touch he'd given my hand, all the more meaningful because he was so sparing. I knew he didn't give away sentiment easily, that I was lucky. It was sweeter this way, better than if I'd gotten my way in the living room. That would have been just one more thing I took without conscious. This was a gift. After all this time, I'd finally managed to really touch someone in a way that really mattered, in a way that didn't have to do with my own guilt, and I'd been given a reward. "You're a good person," he had said. Not 'you're beautiful' or 'I really like you' or any other sentimental, but ultimately shallow compliment. It was exactly what I'd needed to hear, right at this exact moment, whether or not I deserved it. He saw me in a way I didn't even dare to see myself and the world dissolved around that amazing thought.

I twisted my fingers into his hair, thinking of how good this was, how right and meaningful. How happy.

When he pulled away, I waited for a moment before opening my eyes.

I wasn't sure what to expect from him--my expectations had disintegrated somewhere in the last few minutes. He was smiling. It was a cautious smile, but it was there and it was for me.

It faded fast though. His eyes cleared, waking to what had passed, and that hint of caution became dominant. He stepped back.

"I'm sorry," he said. "That was inappropriate."

The apology didn't surprise me, but his word choice did. It wasn't as if I hadn't tried to initiate just such an event on the couch just moments before. Then all at once I remembered Chris, and I looked down at my feet as a hint of shame hit me. I'd broken up with Chris, but not so that I could kiss other people the next day. It was very unlike me to jump from guy to guy like that. If I'd been in a healthier mindset, I might not have kissed Jadin at all. But nothing about the last week--and certainly nothing about Jadin--was typical.

I raised my head and met Jadin's eyes, pushing down my justifications. It was my choice to make, and I was choosing this, even if this was scarcely defined.

I reached my hand out and when he took it without hesitation, my heart thrilled. "Chris and I," I began and his expression at hearing the name told me I'd read him correctly, "we aren't together anymore."

His eyebrows went from creased to surprised in a comic upward motion. "Why?"

I shrugged like I hadn't been thinking of the reason all night. "He hurt my feelings," I simplified, but that didn't feel complete. I opened my mouth and an explanation I hadn't anticipated came pouring out, words that I'd been skimming over every time I thought about how 'inevitable' this break up was. "And because you were right," I told him. "I'm tired of using him. It wasn't fair to either of us. I just want to be myself for a while, even if myself is a little bit crazy." I certainly felt crazy and it had little to do with my psychic dreams. It was a good kind of crazy, the kind that came with ridding yourself of the past and flinging yourself blindly into the future.

Jadin smiled briefly before concern flooded back. "You're sure?" he asked, and I remembered when he'd ordered me earlier not to be sad. He was misinterpreting the reason, but I appreciated the effort more than I could say.

I nodded. "That wasn't about Chris," I said and was grateful when he didn't push for answers. He might have thought I was a good person, but I was still far from proving that to myself. After what had happened to Katie--what I'd let happen to Katie--I wasn't sure I ever could. Not alone.

"C'mon," I said, tugging his hand in the direction of the living room. Despite his patience, he was gearing up to ask, I could see it in his determined expression. "We still have evidence to plant."

He followed me, but looked back at the sink just before we crossed the threshold. His expression was a strange picture of relief. I wanted to think he was contemplating our moment, committing the details to memory, even if his reaction was strange. I was saving that for later, when I could lay in the dark and savor the lingering heat on my body, the ghost-texture of the bristles on the back of his neck against my fingertips. No matter what followed, I was determined to let it be a good memory.

I brought Jadin back to the couch and we sat down again. We'd been here hardly ten minutes before, but the atmosphere was entirely different. The tension between us had finally stretched to a breaking point and the air was clear. It wasn't as if we were suddenly the perfect couple; we went back to our separate sides of the couch and I could once again feel Jadin's distraction. I watched him, the intensity of this near-stranger who had seen something good in me. I had felt that intensity, even been frightened by it. It was a force of strength, and one that I knew for certain was not a lie. He hadn't said those things to sneak a kiss. He meant them. I inhaled, and for what felt like the first time all night, air reached the bottom of my lungs. I was no longer drowning. Like Katie. But I breathed again and felt that Katie's memory had receded. It wasn't buried this time, kept securely in an armored corner of my thoughts. This time it was different, freer. It was as if I'd tucked Katie into bed for the night just as I had Danni. In the morning she would wake up, but for now, I was happy for the break. I deserved a break.

Jadin snapped out of his thoughts first and caught me looking.

His smile returned in an awkward flash. He laughed, and the sudden light in his face made his grey eyes sparkle. "You know, I have no idea what to do next," he said. I could imagine him just a few days ago uttering those words in a tone of despair. Now they were light and unconcerned.

My fingers itched to touch his face and outline that smile before it could disappear again. I settled for patting the couch next to me. "You could start by moving closer."

In the time it took him to consider, I saw that darkness behind his eyes. It was both sad and comforting to know that I was not the only one who was troubled. Maybe the trick was to help each other keep the darkness away. When he was ready, he placed himself next to me, letting our legs touch and relaxing into the sensation.

"And now," I said dramatically, reaching over the side of the couch to where I'd abandoned my English book and purse, "the finishing touch." I grasped the book and placed it in his lap with an unbalanced heave. It fell open to the place where a pen distended the pages in an attempt to mark my place. "Ta dah, English Romanticism. Quick, quiz me."

"Quiz you?"

"Sure. Read me a poem and I'll tell you who wrote it. There's always something like that on our tests."

Jadin eyed the book mistrustfully. "You really think that will be enough?"

"I am a pretty good student."

"That's not what I meant."

I knew it wasn't.

"Relax," I said, and nudged him playfully. "We haven't done anything wrong."

The words had an unexpected weight. It wasn't wrong because I was free. Not just from Chris, but from the illusion that Chris had completed me. Really, the only thing he'd completed was the carefree reputation I'd been striving for to balance out my other reputation for seeking perfection. Both lies. Both so different from what was next to me right now.

To avoid confronting the gravity and newness of that, I made my voice overly bright. "Besides, they Montgomorey's would never suspect. I'm a good girl."

Jadin rolled his eyes but declined to argue any further. Instead, his gaze wandered to the book in his lap, paying it genuine attention for the first time. I'd been mostly joking about quizzing, but he turned a few pages, held up the book so that I couldn't see the text, and began to read, his voice lilting and lovely:

"In the presence of sublime and lovely forms

With the adverse principles of pain and joy--

Evil as one is rashly named by those

Who know not what they say. For love, for here

Do we begin and end, all grandeur comes,

All truth and beauty--from pervading love--

That gone, we are as dust."

"Wordsworth," I answered promptly, "The Prelude of 1805. You could at least try to make it a challenge."

But Jadin seemed to have become uninterested in the game. He had a concentrated look on his face, as if he were the one trying to answer quiz questions. I tried to wait patiently while wondering if he would decide to move back away from me after all.

When he spoke though, it was clear that his thoughts hadn't wandered away from me.

"What would you do?" he asked, idly fingering the pages. "After school. I know you said you hadn't decided yet, but if you had the chance to do anything, what would it be?"

The change of subject was so abrupt my mind went temporarily blank. I'd answered such questions countless times before; it was what everyone asked a high school senior by unspoken law. I'd even answered Jadin once already. But the truth was that my blank mind wasn't just trying to catch up. "I have absolutely no idea," I admitted, and relief washed over me. When I answered these questions for counselors or other adults, I thought of following my mother, of helping people, of atoning for my lapse with Katie. But what if I didn't have to atone? What if what Jadin had said wasn't only what he truly believed but the actual truth? What if just living my life as me was enough? What if all I needed for forward motion was a person near me who knew I could make it?

"The world is a big place," I said, and underneath the careful vernacular of college applications, I could hear the real me speaking. "I really could do anything." And for the first time in a very long time, I believed myself.

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