Angels in the Dust (Book 1)

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22: Alli

I woke the next morning and smiled because I hadn't dreamt at all the night before. Not about black-clad, winged people, not about Katie, not even a pleasant dream about my eventful evening. If Jadin asked me how I'd slept, I'd be able to give him a confident answer for the first time.

I sat up, stretched, and reached for my phone, which was blinking on my nightstand.

I'm soooo sorry! Eve had texted. A full line of emojis trailed the words, miming her distress. I knew that she was talking about Chris.

I brushed my disheveled hair away from my face and replied with a simple Thanks. If we were face to face, a sarcastic 'news travels fast' might have escaped me. I hadn't told Eve about Chris yet. I'd needed the time to process the mess he'd left me with, separate from Eve's protective anger. That meant that Chris had told the story, seizing the opportunity to control the tale's trajectory. I almost asked Eve what he'd said, but it didn't really matter. He'd paint me as the bad guy, but the only people who would care weren't people I'd associate with anyway. I wasn't going to let it ruin my day.

My offer still stands Eve continued. Movie night @ my house?

Definitely! I smiled again, the promise of girl time in my future.

I broke from my warm blankets and got up. I dressed quickly and carelessly, pulling on clothes from my floor and re-braiding my hair without bothering to brush it. On my way to the bathroom, I peeked into Dad's office. Jadin was already gone, his black clothes folded neatly on the floor next to his old sandals. The mattress was made, but it needed to be pumped and made everything else seem unkempt. What would I have said to him if he'd been in here? I decided that didn't matter. Anything would do.

Downstairs, activity was centered in the kitchen. My dad was in there, taking advantage of the weekend to spend some time with his hobby; there was a growing stack of crepes on the counter near the stove where he was working. Bizarrely, working at the left burner next to him, was Jadin. He didn't look up as I came in. He was too busy presiding over a pan of scrambled eggs, poking at them with a spatula and an intense look of concentration. If I didn't know that it would deeply offend him, I would have laughed. I wondered if Jadin had volunteered for the duty or if my dad had recruited him. I thought the latter option much more likely, as the former would have meant a transformation of impossible caliber. Baby steps first.

My mom was sitting at the table, sipping coffee and watching them with a bemused expression. I was proud of her for what she'd done, but I recognized penance when I saw it. I hoped that maybe Jadin could be her last troubled child, but doubted that she would ever feel like she'd done enough.

"Good morning," she smiled at me.

I returned the greeting and moved further into the kitchen. No one questioned my brevity because my first stop was usually the coffee pot. Now though, I made my way to the stove, and wordlessly took the spatula from Jadin's hand. It was good to be able to touch him like that without feeling him flinch. It made me feel special and reinforced the spark that had grown between us. He met my eyes with an expression of gratitude that told me I'd been right about the instigator of kitchen duty. The gentle squeeze he gave my shoulder before joining my mom at the table reassured me he'd felt the spark too.

Dad shot me a curious glance, but he didn't comment. In all honesty, I wouldn't have minded explaining things if he asked. I didn't think I could face my mom about Chris--she wouldn't say I told you so, but smug satisfaction could be expressed in many creative ways--but Dad would understand. Maybe it was time to talk about Katie, too.

"So, how's school?" Dad asked, reading me and then purposely switching to a mundane topic.

I realized that it had been a full week since we'd been in the kitchen together, bonding over boring questions because we understood each other well enough not to need the hard ones. That had been before the party. Unconsciously, my hand went to my collar bone. The bruise there had settled into a purple stain, only painful if I wasn't cautious with it. It was the most obvious souvenir from my week, but hardly the last or even the most painful. I ignored all of that because it was a sunny day and everyone was happy, and focused on telling my dad about school, chattering on about details from my classes or conversations I'd barely registered. When I ran out of real things, I made some up. It didn't take long; usually I was too focused to know any interesting stories. On the spot, I decided I was proud of that. Jadin might have been right about my obsessive need to please, but I would never regret doing my best to stay out of trouble for the sake of my parent's sanity. I wasn't the only one in the family who'd been scarred.

We gathered together and ate in comfortable camaraderie, a strange little family, but one that worked. When we were finished, I brought the dishes to the sink, but my dad shooed me away when I tried to help clean them.

"Go," he demanded. "Enjoy your weekend."

I had no problem obeying. I also had no intention of doing it alone, but sometime in the last two minutes, Jadin had disappeared. I made an inquisitive sweep around the living room and my mother looked up from her tablet long enough to point me to the back door.

Sure enough, Jadin was in the yard, leaning against the tree just as he had been the other night. His eyes were closed and he was taking deep and, presumably, calming breaths. I felt my mouth twist into a silent expression of sympathy. Baby steps, I reminded myself.

"Hey," I called, cheerfully, but with caution. I was ready to go inside if he needed his space. I knew for sure now that he would come back when he was ready.

His eyes snapped open to reveal a familiar harsh expression, one that reminded me of the old adage about offense being the best defense. When he saw it was me, the expression relaxed, the metal in his eyes turning molten.

"I'm trying," he said before I could ask if he was okay. "I promise."

"I know," I assured him.

He smiled at me, not out of humor or sarcasm, but with real appreciation.

"You want to go for a walk?" I suggested. "It's such a pretty day." It was warmer than it had been in weeks; content in long sleeves, neither of us had bothered with jackets.

"Is this another one of your ploys to get me out of the house?"

I scoffed indignantly. "Ploy? I don't see you refusing."

"That's because you're the one who suggests them."

He said it so bluntly, I almost didn't believe him. It was possible that he was only trying to throw me off balance in the middle of one of our famous disagreements. If so, he'd certainly won the round. But he wasn't a liar. The king of ambiguity, maybe, but not a liar. My body knew it before my brain caught up; warm tingles had left goose bumps on my arms.

"But that doesn't make me wrong." He peeled himself away from the tree and stood in front of me. The mocking expectation on his face kept me from retorting quickly enough to initiate another bout. "Well," he said, gesturing theatrically toward the house, "lead on." He was trying to be casual, but he was poorly concealing real excitement. It had taken me time to recognize it because I'd only ever seen dread, never positive anticipation, on his features.

What a mean trick. I couldn't possibly tease him now.

Quickly, I thought up an actual destination, a nice place I could show him that might win me a smile. Then I led him to the street, using the back gate instead of going through the house as punishment for his sass.

My idea didn't take us far; a few blocks from my house, construction crews had been at work for months creating more housing. There were construction sites even closer than this one, but this place was meant to be more upscale. The houses, even the ones which had barely more to them than a wooden frame, were big and grand. Three show houses sat complete at the end of the road and several cars were parked in front of them. They were interesting in their own right, but I led us down a side road into a cul-de-sac. Here the houses were mostly completed, standing seemingly ready for occupancy at the expense of their lawns. The one I aimed for was their direct opposite. Construction had obviously been halted for some time, as if someone had run out of money to finance it halfway through. Only the wooden structure had been completed; through the glassless windows, you could see the bare bones of a staircase. But where the other houses featured sand and gravel, this house had a full blown yard, a testament to the time it had spent vacant. With no workers to tramp it down and no machines to dig it up, full patches of grass had formed, nearly neat enough to have been constructed on purpose. In the cold, the grass had faded to yellow as it poked up from the brown earth. The inevitable transience of such a setup only made the contradiction more interesting.

"Wow," Jadin said, sounding sincere if not completely awed.

I nodded in agreement and led him to the backyard. It looked just as complete as the front, and was even given structure by the wooden planks of its neighbor's fences. A large rectangle was marked out in the middle by miniature red flags, like they meant to build a pool. I double-checked that the yard was empty, and then sat down at the edge of the flags. From this side, the interior structure of the house was more obvious. I liked to imagine the inside as it might be in the future--living room, kitchen, soft carpets, and pastel paint.

Jadin sat down next to me like he'd never once questioned whether or not he belonged there, legs crossed and hands in his lap.

"Interesting choice," he commented, scanning the house as if he were playing my imagination game. "How did you find it?"

I shrugged. "Just walking." It wasn't a complicated story. I'd been alone, for which I was now grateful. I didn't have any particular associations with the place other than as a private escape. I couldn't even remember why I'd left my house that day, perhaps in a fit of aggravation that I'd needed to work out. "It wasn't all that long ago, but it hasn't ever changed."

"Interesting," he repeated, and fell silent.

I let him sit for a few minutes. He continued to examine the house as if mentally trying to piece together a Rubik's cube. I searched for a conversation starter, anything to get him talking. I thought I knew quiet, introspective Jadin well enough already. I was ready to move on to something else, something more natural than our usual dream-themed fare. The house seemed like a good launching point, but I knew from experience that questions like 'where have you lived?' were sensitive subjects. I settled on something similar, but hopefully more generic.

"So," I began, demanding attention with my tone. He turned immediately, his eyes locking with mine in an intense way that made my breath catch. "Tell me something about your life. Tell me about your friends." During our very first conversation in Mr. Silvey's class, he'd suggested that he didn't have friends. Now, I thought I could get him to answer for real. With or without a home to speak of, I figured he'd met enough people to at least have a story or two about acquaintances. My mistake was thinking that it would be a less painful question.

Jadin looked down at his clasped hands. "You're my friend," he muttered, like he was embarrassed or unsure of the fact.

"Well, yeah," I agreed frankly, because he seemed to need to hear it. I could have told him that I thought he was a good friend, because even if it didn't always come across, he always made the effort to be good to me. It was what had made our kiss so sweet for me. But that was getting far off the subject, and letting him off the hook. I left it at that until he looked at me again. "But there has to be someone else."

He shook his head, sarcasm creeping on to his face to mask vulnerability. "I know my charming personality might suggest otherwise," he drawled insincerely, "but I don't do well with friends."

Unwillingly, I thought about all of the times I'd seen him around people our age and how hostile he could become. I thought particularly about how he'd treated Eve, staring at her like his piercing gaze could make her physically smaller. Those were early days, but I still wasn't willing to put them in the same room.

Still, I pressed. A traumatic time created its own rules, and I knew he hadn't been at his best then. "There has to be someone. Someone you ate lunch with, or told jokes to, or just sat around with."

That last one seemed to spark a memory. "Well," he conceded, "there's this one guy. Eli. We used to hang out when we didn't have anything else to do."

"What's he like?"

"Infuriating actually," Jadin said, dryly at first, then with more affection. "He's younger than me, just a kid, really. But a good kid. He could always make me smile."

That someone else could manage the feat made me smile too.

"I wasn't very good to him," he said it like he was just coming to the conclusion.

"Do you still talk?"

"Sometimes."

"Then don't worry. You'll get the chance to make up for it."

"Yeah," he agreed. "I think I'll try. Thanks."

"Any time."

In my pocket, my phone started to buzz. I took it out to check the caller ID. Home, it said.

I stood, using Jadin's shoulder as a brace. "Just a sec. I'll be right back." I squeezed his shoulder, a reminder to stay encouraged, and that finally won the just-for-me grin I'd been after. If it had been Eve calling, I would have ignored the phone and kissed him. I no longer cared about taking time to figure things out or about saving my reputation after Chris. I knew in that moment that I'd already made my decision. I wanted just-for-me moments with Jadin every day. It was still tempting to ignore the call, except that I didn't want to worry my parents. I didn't doubt that they were still on tenterhooks because of my accident.

I walked towards one of the neighboring fences with some reluctance and answered the phone.

"Hello?"

"Hey, where'd you run off to?" my mom asked. She was trying hard not to sound like an over-controlling parent. I appreciated the effort and felt bad about running off without saying anything.

I explained where we'd gone. To make up for my lapse, I also explained about my promised movie night with Eve. Her slightly disapproving tone told me I might have to do some in-person convincing. I promised to be home soon and hung up.

I turned to walk back to Jadin, who was watching me. He seemed so content sitting there, actually peaceful for the first time in who-knew how long. I was contemplating other topics to discuss with him, especially ones that allowed me to share too, when a fierce pain ripped open inside my chest.

I had time for one fragmented breath.

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