For Ethan, the chaos is a frightening but welcome distraction. He's being haunted in his dreams again, but this time it's not Lena and the mysterious figure is following him out of his dreams and into his everyday life. Worse, Ethan is gradually losing pieces of himself forgetting names, phone numbers, even memories. He doesn't know why, and he's afraid to ask.
Sometimes there's no going back. And this time there won't be a happy ending.
SPECIAL BONUS: Includes "Dream Dark," a thrilling short story set before Beautiful Chaos. When Link joined his best friend, Ethan Wate, on a quest through a mysterious network of underground passageways endlessly crisscrossing the South, he knew the journey would be dangerous. But he had no idea it would change his life forever.
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By Garcia, Kami
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2011 Garcia, Kami
All right reserved.
Sugar and Salt
In Gatlin, it’s funny how the good things are all tied up with the bad. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. But either way, you end up taking your sugar with your salt and your kicks with your kisses, as Amma would say.
I don’t know if it’s like that everywhere. I only know Gatlin, and this is what I know: By the time I got back to my usual seat at church with the Sisters, the only news being passed along with the collection plate was that the Bluebird Café had stopped serving up hamburger soup, peach pie season was winding down, and some hooligans had stolen the tire swing from the old oak near the General’s Green. Half the congregation was still shuffling down the carpeted aisles in what my mom used to call Red Cross shoes. With all the purple knees puffing up where the knee-highs ended, it felt like a whole sea of legs was holding its breath. At least I was.
But the Sisters still propped their hymnals open to the wrong pages with their curled knuckles, wadded up handkerchiefs buried in the spotted roses of their hands. Nothing kept them from singing the melody, loud and shrill, as they tried to drown one another out. Except Aunt Prue. She accidentally hit on a real harmony about three notes out of three hundred, but nobody minded. Some things didn’t have to change, and maybe they shouldn’t. Some things, like Aunt Prue, were meant to be off-key.
It was as if this summer had never happened, and we were safe within these walls. Like nothing but the thick, colored sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows could force its way in here. Not Abraham Ravenwood or Hunting and his Blood Pack. Not Lena’s mother Sarafine or the Devil himself. Nobody else could get past the fierce hospitality of the ushers handing out programs. And even if they did, the preacher would keep on preaching and the choir would keep on singing, because nothing short of the apocalypse could keep folks in Gatlin out of church or each other’s business.
But outside these walls, this summer had changed everything, in both the Caster and Mortal worlds, even if the folks in Gatlin didn’t know it. Lena had Claimed herself both Light and Dark and split the Seventeenth Moon. A battle between Demons and Casters had ended in death on both sides and opened a crack in the Order of Things the size of the Grand Canyon. What Lena had done was the Caster equivalent of smashing the Ten Commandments. I wondered what the folks in Gatlin would think about that, if they’d ever know. I hoped they wouldn’t.
This town used to make me feel claustrophobic, and I hated it. Now it felt more like something expected, something I would miss someday. And that day was coming. No one knew that better than I did.
Sugar and salt and kicks and kisses. The girl I loved had come back to me and broken the world. That’s what actually happened this summer.
We’d seen the last of hamburger soup and peach pie and tire swings. But we’d seen the start of something, too.
The beginning of the End of Days.
I was standing on the top of the white water tower, with my back to the sun. My headless shadow fell across the warm painted metal, disappearing off the edge and into the sky. I could see Summerville stretching out before me, all the way to the lake, from Route 9 to Gatlin. This had been our happy place, mine and Lena’s. One of them, at least. But I wasn’t feeling happy. I felt like I was going to throw up.
My eyes were watering, but I didn’t know why. Maybe it was the light.
Come on, already. It’s time.
I clenched and unclenched my fists—staring out at the tiny houses, the tiny cars, and the tiny people—waiting for it to happen. The dread churned in my stomach, heavy and wrong. Then the familiar arms slammed into my waist, knocking the air out of me and dragging me down to the metal ladder. My jaw hit the side of the railing, and I stumbled. I lurched forward, trying to throw him off.
Who are you?
But the harder I swung, the harder he hit me. The next punch landed in my stomach, and I doubled over. That’s when I saw them.
His black Chucks. They were so old and beat-up, they could have been mine.
What do you want?
I didn’t wait for an answer. I lunged for his throat, and he went for mine. That’s when I caught a look at his face, and I saw the truth.
He was me.
As we stared into each other’s eyes and clawed at each other’s throats, we rolled over the edge of the water tower and fell.
The whole way down, I could only think one thing.
My head hit the floor with a crack, and my body followed a second later, the sheets tangled around me. I tried to open my eyes, but they were still blurred with sleep. I waited for the panic to subside.
In my old dreams, I had tried to keep Lena from falling. Now I was the one falling. What did that mean? Why did I wake up feeling like I’d already fallen?
“Ethan Lawson Wate! What in our Sweet Redeemer’s name are you doin’ up there?” Amma had a particular way of shouting that could haul you right back up out of Hades, as my dad would say.
I opened my eyes, but all I could see was a lonely sock, a spider working its way aimlessly through the dust, and a few beat-up, spine-busted books. Catch-22. Ender’s Game. The Outsiders. A few others. The thrilling view under my bed.
“Nothing. Just shutting the window.” I stared at my window, but I didn’t close it. I always slept with it open. I’d started leaving it open when Macon died—at least, when we thought he’d died—and now it was a reassuring habit. Most people felt safer with their windows closed, but I knew a closed window couldn’t protect me from the things I was afraid of. It couldn’t keep out a Dark Caster or a Blood Incubus.
I wasn’t sure anything could.
But if there was a way, Macon seemed determined to find it. I hadn’t seen much of him since we came back from the Great Barrier. He was always in the Tunnels anyway, or working on some kind of protective Cast to Bind Ravenwood. Lena’s house had become the Fortress of Solitude since the Seventeenth Moon, when the Order of Things—the delicate balance that regulated the Caster world—was broken. Amma was creating her own Fortress of Solitude here at Wate’s Landing—or Fortress of Superstition, as Link called it. Amma would’ve called it “taking preventative measures.” She had lined every windowsill with salt and used my dad’s rickety stepladder to hang cracked glass bottles upside down on every branch of our crepe myrtle tree. In Wader’s Creek, bottle trees were as common as cypresses. Now whenever I saw Link’s mom at the Stop & Steal, Mrs. Lincoln said the same thing—“Caught any evil spirits in those old bottles yet?”
I wish we could catch yours. That’s what I wanted to say. Mrs. Lincoln stuffed in a dusty brown Coke bottle. I wasn’t sure any bottle tree could handle that.
Right now, I just wanted to catch a breeze. The heat rolled over me as I leaned against my old wooden bed frame. It was thick and suffocating, a blanket you couldn’t kick off. The relentless South Carolina sun usually let up a little by September, but not this year.
I rubbed the lump on my forehead and stumbled to the shower. I turned on the cold water. I let it run for a minute, but it still came out warm.
Five in a row. I had fallen out of bed five straight mornings, and I was afraid to tell Amma about the nightmares. Who knew what she would hang on our old crepe myrtle next? After everything that happened this summer, Amma had closed in on me like a mother hawk protecting her nest. Every time I stepped out of the house, I could almost feel her shadowing me like my own personal Sheer, a ghost I couldn’t escape.
And I couldn’t stand it. I needed to believe that sometimes a nightmare was just a nightmare.
I smelled the bacon frying, and turned up the water. It finally went cold. It wasn’t until I was drying off that I noticed the window had closed without me.
“Hurry up, Sleepin’ Beauty. I’m ready to hit the books.” I heard Link before I saw him, but I almost wouldn’t have recognized his voice. It was deeper, and he sounded more like a man and less like a guy who specialized in banging on the drums and writing bad songs.
“Yeah, you’re ready to hit something, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the books.” I slid into the chair next to his spot at our chipped kitchen table. Link had bulked up so much that it looked like he was sitting in one of those tiny plastic chairs from elementary school. “Since when do you show up on time for school?”
At the stove, Amma sniffed, one hand on her hip, the other pushing at scrambled eggs with the One-Eyed Menace, her wooden spoon of justice.
“Morning, Amma.” I could tell I was about to get an earful, from the way she had one hip cocked up higher than the other. Kind of like a loaded pistol.
“Feels more like afternoon to me. ’Bout time you decided to join us.” Standing at a hot stove on an even hotter day, she didn’t break a sweat. It would take more than the weather to force Amma to budge an inch out of her way of doing things. The look in her eye reminded me of that as she sent a whole henhouse’s worth of eggs tumbling across my blue and white Dragonware plate. The bigger the breakfast, the bigger the day, in Amma’s mind. At this rate, by the time I graduated I’d be one giant biscuit floating in a bathtub full of pancake batter. A dozen scrambled eggs on my plate meant there was no denying it. It really was the first day of school.
You wouldn’t expect me to be itching to get back to Jackson High. Last year, with the exception of Link, my so-called friends had treated me like crap. But the truth was, I couldn’t wait for a reason to get out of my house.
“You eat up, Ethan Wate.” Toast flew onto the plate, chased by bacon and sealed with a healthy glop of butter and grits. Amma had put out a placemat for Link, but there was no plate on it. Not even a glass. She knew Link wouldn’t be eating her eggs, or anything else she whipped up in our kitchen.
But not even Amma could tell us what he was capable of now. No one knew, least of all Link. If John Breed was some kind of Caster-Incubus hybrid, Link was one generation removed. As far as Macon could tell, Link was the Incubus equivalent of some distant Southern cousin you ran into every couple of years at a wedding or a funeral and called the wrong name.
Link stretched his arms behind his head, relaxed. The wooden chair creaked under his weight. “It’s been a long summer, Wate. I’m ready to get back in the game.”
I swallowed a spoonful of grits and had to fight the urge to spit them out. They tasted weird, dry. Amma had never made a bad batch of grits in her life. Maybe it was the heat. “Why don’t you ask Ridley how she feels about that, and get back to me?”
He winced, and I could tell the subject had already come up. “It’s our junior year, and I’m the only Linkubus at Jackson. I got all the charm and none a the harm. All the muscle and none a the—”
“What? You have a rhyme for muscle? Hustle? Bustle?” I would’ve laughed, but I was having a hard time getting my grits down.
“You know what I mean.” I did. It was a little more than ironic. His on-again, off-again girlfriend, Lena’s cousin Ridley, had been a Siren—able to get any guy, anywhere, to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted it. Until Sarafine took Ridley’s powers, and she became a Mortal just days before Link became part Incubus. Not long after that bite, we could all see the transformation beginning, right in front of our eyes.
Link’s ridiculously greasy spiked hair became ridiculously cool greasy spiked hair. He packed on the muscle, popping out biceps like the inflatable water wings his mother used to make him wear long after he knew how to swim. He looked more like a guy in an actual rock band than a guy who dreamed about being in one.
“I wouldn’t mess with Ridley. She may not be a Siren anymore, but she’s still trouble.” I scooped grits and eggs onto my toast, slapped bacon in the middle, and rolled it all up together.
Link looked at me like he wanted to puke. Food didn’t have the same appeal now that he was part Incubus. “Dude, I’m not messin’ with Ridley. I’m stupid, but I’m not that stupid.”
I was starting to have my doubts. I shrugged and stuffed half my breakfast sandwich into my mouth. It tasted wrong, too. Guess I undershot on the bacon.
Before I could say another word, a hand clamped down on my shoulder, and I jumped. For a second, I was back at the top of the water tower in my dream, bracing for an attack. But it was only Amma, ready for her usual first day of school lecture. At least, that’s what I thought. I should’ve noticed the red string tied around her wrist. A new charm always meant the clouds were rolling in.
“Don’t know what you boys are thinkin’, sitting here like today’s just another day. It’s not over—not the moon or this heat or that business with Abraham Ravenwood. You two are actin’ like done is done, the lights are on and it’s time to leave the picture show.” She lowered her voice. “Well, you’re as wrong as walkin’ barefoot in church. Things have consequences, and we haven’t seen the half a them.”
I knew about consequences. They were everywhere I looked, no matter how hard I tried not to see them.
“Ma’am?” Link should have known to keep his mouth shut when Amma was going dark.
She clenched Link’s shirt tighter, creating fresh cracks in the Black Sabbath iron-on decal. “Stick close to my boy. There’s trouble runnin’ through you now, and I’m ten kinds a sorry ’bout that. But it’s the kind a trouble that may keep you fools from gettin’ into any more. You hear me, Wesley Jefferson Lincoln?”
Link nodded, scared. “Yes, ma’am.”
I looked up at Amma from my side of the table. She hadn’t relaxed her grip on Link, and she wasn’t about to let go of me anytime soon. “Amma, don’t get yourself all worked up. It’s just the first day of school. Compared to what we’ve been through, this is nothing. It’s not like there are any Vexes or Incubuses or Demons at Jackson High.”
Link cleared his throat. “Well, that isn’t exactly true.” He tried to smile, but Amma twisted his shirt even harder, until he rose up from the seat of his chair. “Ow!”
“You think this is funny?” Link was smart enough to keep his mouth shut this time. Amma turned to me. “I was there when you lost your first tooth in that apple, and your wheels in the Pinewood Derby. I’ve cut up shoe boxes for dioramas and iced hundreds a birthday cupcakes. Never said a word when your water collection up and evaporated like I said it would.”
“No, ma’am.” It was true. Amma was the constant in my life. She was there when my mom died, almost a year and a half ago, and when my dad lost himself because of it.
She let go of my shirt as suddenly as she had taken it, smoothed her apron, and lowered her voice. Whatever had brought on this particular storm had passed. Maybe it was the heat. It was getting to all of us.
Amma looked out the window, past Link and me. “I’ve been here, Ethan Wate. And I will be, long as you are. Long as you need me. Not a minute less. Not a minute more.”
What was that supposed to mean? Amma had never talked to me that way before—like there would ever be a time when I wasn’t here or I wouldn’t need her.
“I know, Amma.”
“You look me in the eye and tell me you’re not as scared as I am, five miles down.” Her voice was low, nearly a whisper.
“We made it back in one piece. That’s what matters. We can figure everything else out.”
“It’s not that simple.” Amma was still talking as quietly as if we were in the front pew at church. “Pay attention. Has anything, even one thing, felt the same since we got back to Gatlin?”
Link spoke up, scratching his head. “Ma’am, if it’s Ethan and Lena you’re worried about, I promise you as long as I’m around, with my superstrength and all, nothin’s gonna happen to them.” He flexed his arm proudly.
Amma snorted. “Wesley Lincoln. Don’t you know? The kind a things I’m talkin’ about, you could no more keep from happenin’ than you could keep the sky from fallin’.”
I took a swig of my chocolate milk and almost spit it out all over the table. It tasted too sweet, sugar coating my throat like cough syrup. It was like my eggs, which had tasted more like cotton, and the grits more like sand.
Everything was off today, everything and everyone. “What’s wrong with the milk, Amma?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know, Ethan Wate. What’s wrong with your mouth?”
I wish I knew.
By the time we were out the door and in the Beater, I turned back for one last look at Wate’s Landing. I don’t know why. She was standing in the window, between the curtains, watching me drive away. And if I didn’t know better, and I didn’t know Amma, I would have sworn she was crying.
As we drove down Dove Street, it was hard to believe our town had ever been anything but brown. The grass looked like burnt toast before you scraped off the black parts. The Beater was about the only thing that hadn’t changed. Link was actually driving the speed limit for once, even if it was only because he wanted to check out what was left of our neighbors’ front yards.
“Man, look at Mrs. Asher’s azaleas. Sun’s so hot, they turned black.” Link was right about the heat. According to the Farmers’ Almanac, and the Sisters, who were Gatlin’s walking almanac, it hadn’t been this hot in Gatlin County since 1942. But the sun wasn’t what had killed Mrs. Asher’s azaleas.
“They aren’t burnt. They’re covered in lubbers.”
Link hung out the window to get a better look. “No way.”
The grasshoppers had shown up in droves three weeks after Lena Claimed herself, and two weeks after the worst heat wave in seventy years hit. Lubber grasshoppers weren’t your run-of-the-mill green grasshoppers, like the ones Amma found in the kitchen every now and then. Lubbers were black, with an angry slash of yellow running down their backs, and they traveled in swarms. They were like locusts, devouring every inch of green in town, including the General’s Green. General Jubal A. Early’s statue was standing on a brown circle of dead grass, his sword drawn and covered with a black army of its own.
Link sped up a little. “That’s nasty. My mom thinks they’re one a the plagues a the apocalypse. She’s waitin’ for the frogs to show up and the water to run red.”
For once I couldn’t blame Mrs. Lincoln. In a town built on equal parts religion and superstition, it was hard to ignore an unprecedented infestation of grasshoppers that had descended on Gatlin like a black cloud. Every day seemed like an End of Days kind of a day. And I wasn’t about to knock on Mrs. Lincoln’s door and tell her it was most likely the result of my Caster girlfriend splitting the moon and disrupting the Order of Things. We were having a hard enough time convincing Link’s mom that his new physique wasn’t the result of steroids. He had already been to Doc Asher’s office twice this month.
When we pulled into the parking lot, Lena was already there, and something else had changed. She wasn’t driving her cousin Larkin’s Fastback anymore. She was standing next to Macon’s hearse, in a vintage U2 T-shirt with the word WAR written across the top, a gray skirt, and her old black Chucks. There was fresh Sharpie inked across the toes. It was crazy how a hearse and a pair of sneakers could cheer a guy up.
A million thoughts ran through my head. That when she looked at me, it was like there was no one else in the world. That when I looked at her, I noticed every detail about her while everything else faded away. That I was only myself when we were together.
It was impossible to put into words, and even if I could I wasn’t sure the words would be right. But I didn’t have to try, because Lena and I never had to say the things we felt. We could think them, and Kelting took care of the rest.
What took you so long?
I climbed out of the passenger seat, the back of my shirt already soaked with sweat. Link seemed immune to the heat, another perk of being part Incubus. I slipped into Lena’s arms and breathed her in.
Lemons and rosemary. The scent I had followed through the halls of Jackson before I saw her for the first time. The one that had never faded, even when she walked into the darkness and away from me.
I leaned down carefully to kiss her without brushing against any other part of her body. These days, the more we touched, the less I could breathe. The physical effects of touching her had intensified, and even though I tried to hide it, she knew.
I felt the jolt as soon as our lips met. The sweetness of her kiss was so perfect and the shock of her skin so powerful that my head was always left spinning. But now there was something else—the feeling she was inhaling my breath every time our lips met, pulling an invisible string I couldn’t control. Lena arched her neck and pulled away before I could move.
I sighed, and she blew me a kiss.
But, L, it’s been…
A whole nine hours?
I smiled at her, and she shook her head.
I don’t want you to spend the first day of school in the nurse’s office.
Lena was more worried about me than I was. If something happened to me—which was a pretty big possibility, since it was becoming harder to kiss her, and even harder to stay away—I didn’t care. I couldn’t stand to think about not touching her. Things were changing. That feeling—the pain that wasn’t pain—was still there even when we were apart. There should be a name for it, the perfect ache I felt in the empty places she usually filled.
Is there a word to describe that? Heartache, maybe? Is that how they came up with the word? Except I felt it in my gut, my head, my entire body. I saw Lena when I was looking out windows and staring at walls.
I tried to focus on something that didn’t hurt. “I like your new wheels.”
“You mean my old ones? Ridley threw a fit about riding in a hearse.”
“Where’s Rid?” Link was already scanning the parking lot.
Lena gestured at the hearse behind her. “She’s in there changing her clothes.”
“She can’t change at home like a normal person?” I asked.
“I heard that, Short Straw,” Ridley called out from inside the car. “I am not”—a ball of crumpled fabric flew through the driver’s side window, landing in a heap on the steaming asphalt—“a normal person.” She said it like normal was an affliction. “And I am not wearing this mass-produced piece of mall crap.” Ridley was squirming around, the leather seat squeaking as flashes of blond and pink hair whipped in and out of view. A pair of silver shoes flew out the window. “I look like I belong on the Disney Channel.”
I bent down and picked up the offensive piece of clothing. It was a short, printed dress from a chain store at the mall in Summerville. It was a variation of the same dress Savannah Snow, Emily Asher, Eden Westerly, and Charlotte Chase—the queens of the cheerleading squad—and therefore half the girls at Jackson High, wore.
Lena rolled her eyes. “Gramma decided Ridley needed to dress more appropriately now that she would be going to a Mortal high school.” Lena dropped her voice. “You know, as a Mortal.”
“I heard that!” A white tank top flew out the window. “Just because I’m a disgusting Mortal doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.” Lena glanced over her shoulder and moved away from the car. Ridley stepped out of the hearse and adjusted her new outfit—a bright pink T-shirt and a black sliver of material that she was passing off as a skirt. The shirt was slashed all over and safety-pinned in a few places, hanging down on one side to show off Ridley’s shoulder.
“I don’t know if you’ll ever look like a Mortal, Babe.” Link tugged uncomfortably on his own T-shirt, which looked like his mom had shrunk it in the wash.
“Thank God for small favors. And don’t call me Babe.” Ridley grabbed the dress, holding it between two fingers. “We should give this thing to Goodwill. Maybe they can sell it as a Halloween costume.”
Lena stared at a belt buckle slung low around Ridley’s waist. “Speaking of Goodwill, what’s that?”
“What? This old thing?” It was an oversize buckle on a battered black leather belt, with some kind of insect caught in a rock or plastic or something. I think it was a scorpion. It was creepy and weird, and very Ridley. “Just trying to fit in.” Ridley smiled, smacking her gum. “You know. All the cool kids are wearing them.” Without her signature lollipops, she was about as cranky as my dad when Amma switched him to decaf.
Lena let it go. “You’re gonna have to change back before we go home, or Gramma will figure out what you’re up to.” Ridley ignored her and dropped the crumpled dress onto the hot asphalt, stepping on it with her superhigh sandals.
Lena sighed and held out her hand. The dress flew up toward her fingers, but before it reached them the fabric burst into flames. Lena yanked her hand back, and the dress hit the ground, the edges already charred.
“Holy crap!” Link stomped on the material until there was nothing left but a smoldering black mess. Lena turned red.
Ridley was unfazed. “Way to go, Cuz. Couldn’t have done it better myself.”
Lena watched the last curl of black smoke disappear. “I didn’t mean—”
“I know.” Ridley looked bored.
Lena’s powers had been out of whack ever since she Claimed herself, which was dangerous, considering she was both Light and Dark. Her powers had always been unpredictable, but now she could cause anything from downpours and hurricane-force winds to forest fires.
Lena sighed, frustrated. “I’ll get you another one before the end of the day, Rid.”
Ridley rolled her eyes, digging through her purse. “Don’t do me any favors.” She pulled out her sunglasses.
“Good idea.” Link slid on his scratched black wraparound shades, which had been cool for about ten minutes when we were in sixth grade. “Let’s groove, Sugar Cube.”
They turned toward the steps, and I saw my chance. I reached for Lena’s arm and pulled her close. She pushed my brown hair, which was always a little too long, out of my eyes and looked up at me from under her thick black lashes. One perfectly gold eye and one dark green one stared back at me. Her eyes had never changed back after the night Sarafine called the Seventeenth Moon out of time. She looked up at me with the gold eye of a Dark Caster and the green eye of a Light one—a constant reminder of the moment Lena realized she possessed both types of power. But her eyes were also a reminder that her choice had changed things for both the Caster and the Mortal worlds. And for us.
Shh. You worry too much.
I wrapped my arms around her, and the feel of her burned through my veins. I could feel the intensity of it as I struggled to keep my shallow breaths even. She tugged gently on my lower lip as we kissed, and I was light-headed and disoriented in seconds. To me, we weren’t standing in the middle of the parking lot. Images flashed through my mind, and I had to be hallucinating, because now we were kissing in the water, in Lake Moultrie—on my desk in English—at the lunch tables—behind the bleachers—in the garden at Greenbrier.
Then a shadow passed over me, and I felt something that wasn’t the result of her kiss. I’d had the same feeling before, on top of the water tower, in my dream. A suffocating dizziness wrapped itself around me, and Lena and I weren’t in the garden anymore. We were surrounded by dirt, kissing in an open grave.
I was going to pass out.
As my knees buckled, a voice cut through the air and our kiss, and Lena tore herself away from me.
“Hey there. How y’all doin’?” Savannah Snow.
I collapsed against the side of the hearse, sliding to the ground. Then I felt someone pulling me up, my feet barely touching the asphalt.
“What’s wrong with Ethan?” Savannah drawled. I opened my eyes.
“The heat, I guess.” Link grinned and put me down. Lena looked shocked, but Ridley looked worse. Because Link was smiling like someone had just offered him a record deal. That someone being Savannah Snow—cheer captain, Third Degree Burns–level hot—and the Holy Grail of unattainable girls at Stonewall Jackson High.
Savannah stood there, squeezing her books against her chest so hard her knuckles turned white. She was wearing almost the same dress Ridley had tossed onto the asphalt seconds earlier. Emily Asher was trailing behind her, wearing her own version of Savannah’s outfit, looking confused. Savannah stepped closer to Link, with only her books between them. “What I really meant was, how are you?”
Link ran his hand through his hair nervously and took a step back. “I’m good. What’s up?”
Savannah flipped her blond ponytail and bit her lower lip suggestively, sticky pink lip gloss melting in the sun. “Not much. Just wonderin’ if you’re goin’ to the Dar-ee Keen after school. Maybe you can give me a ride.”
Emily looked as surprised as I was. Savannah was more likely to give up her position on the cheer squad than agree to ride in Link’s rusted shell of a car. Since riding around with Savannah was one of the requirements of being her sidekick, Emily spoke up. “Savannah, we have a ride. Earl is takin’ us, remember?”
“You ride with Earl. I think I’d rather ride with Link.” Savannah was still staring at Link like he was a rock star.
Lena shook her head at me.
I told you. It’s the John Breed effect. Not too shabby for a quarter Incubus. You can’t expect a Mortal girl not to feel it.
That was an understatement.
Just Mortal girls, L?
She pretended not to know what I was talking about.
Not all Mortal girls. Look—
She was right. Link didn’t seem to be having the same effect on Emily. The more Savannah licked her lips, the more nauseated Emily appeared.
Ridley grabbed Link’s arm, jerking him away from Savannah. “He’s busy this afternoon, sweetheart. You should listen to your friend.” Her eyes weren’t yellow anymore, but Ridley looked as intimidating as her former Dark Caster self.
Savannah didn’t think so, or she didn’t care. “Oh, sorry. Are you two together?” She paused for a second, pretending to appear thoughtful. “No. That’s right, you aren’t.”
Anyone who spent any time at the Dar-ee Keen knew that Link and Ridley’s on-again, off-again relationship was off at the moment. Savannah hooked her arm through Link’s other arm. A challenge. “I guess that means Link can make his own decisions.”
Link untangled himself from both of them and draped his arms over their shoulders. “Ladies, ladies. There’s no need to fight. There’s plenty a this to go around.” He puffed out his chest, even though it was big enough already. Normally, I would’ve laughed at the idea of two girls fighting over Link, except they weren’t just any two girls. We were talking about Savannah Snow and Ridley Duchannes. Supernatural or not, they were the two most powerful Sirens mankind had ever been lucky—or unlucky—enough to encounter, depending on how they used their powers of persuasion.
“Savannah, let’s go. We’re gonna be late for class.” Emily sounded disgusted. I wondered why Link’s Incubus magnetism didn’t work on her.
Savannah wedged herself tighter under his arm. “You should find yourself a guy who’s more”—she looked at Ridley and her safety-pinned shirt—“like you.”
Ridley shrugged Link’s arm off her shoulder. “And you should be careful who you talk to like that, Barbie.” Savannah was lucky Ridley didn’t have her powers anymore.
This is about to get ugly, L.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to let Rid get kicked out on her first day. I won’t give Principal Harper the satisfaction.
“Ridley, let’s go.” Lena walked over and stood next to her cousin. “She’s not worth it. Trust me.”
Savannah was about to fire back, when something distracted her. She crinkled her nose. “Your eyes—they’re two different colors. What’s wrong with you?”
Emily wandered over to get a better look. It was only a matter of time before someone noticed Lena’s eyes. They were impossible to miss. But I had hoped we would make it past the parking lot before the first wave of gossip hit. “Savannah, why don’t you—”
Lena interrupted before I could finish. “I would ask you the same question, but we all know the answer.”
Ridley crossed her arms. “Let me give you a hint. It begins with B and rhymes with bitch.”
Lena turned her back on Savannah and Emily, heading for Jackson’s broken concrete steps. I grabbed her hand, the energy pulsating up my arm. I expected Lena to be shaky after facing off against Savannah, but she was calm. Something had changed, and it was more than just her eyes. I guess when you’ve faced a Dark Caster who also happens to be your mother, and a hundred-and-fifty-year-old Blood Incubus who is trying to kill you, a few cheerleaders aren’t that intimidating.
Lena squeezed my hand.
I could hear Ridley’s shoes smacking against the concrete behind us. Link jogged up alongside me. “Man, if this is what I have to look forward to, this year is gonna rock.”
I tried to convince myself he was right as we cut across the brown grass, dead lubbers crunching under our feet.
There’s something about walking into school holding hands with a person you actually love. It’s strange—not bad strange. The best strange. I remembered what made couples hang around attached to each other like cold spaghetti. There were so many ways to be knotted up together. Arms draped around necks, hands crossed in pockets. We couldn’t even walk next to each other without our shoulders finding a way to bump, as if our bodies gravitated toward each other on their own. I guess when electric voltage marked each of those tiny connections, you noticed them more than the average guy.
Even though I should’ve been used to it by now, it still felt weird to walk down the halls while everyone stared at Lena. She would always be the most beautiful girl in school, no matter what color her eyes were, and everyone here knew it, too. She was that girl—the one who had her own kind of power, supernatural or not. And there was a look a guy couldn’t help but give that girl, no matter what she’d done or how much of a freak she would always be.
It was the same look the guys were giving her now.
Calm down, Lover Boy.
Lena bumped her shoulder against mine.
I forgot what this walk was like. After Lena’s sixteenth birthday, I lost more and more of her every day. By the end of the school year, she was so distant I could barely find her in the halls. It was only a few months ago. But now that we were here again, I remembered.
I don’t like the way they’re looking at you.
I stopped walking and touched the side of Lena’s face, below the crescent-shaped birthmark on her cheekbone. A shiver shot through both of us, and I leaned down to find her mouth.
She pulled back, smiling, and dragged me down the hall.
I get the picture. But I think you’re way off. Look.
Emory Watkins and the other guys from the basketball team were staring past us as we walked by his locker. He nodded at me.
I hate to break it to you, Ethan, but they’re not looking at me.
I heard Link’s voice. “Hey, girls. We shootin’ hoops this afternoon or what?” He bumped fists with Emory and kept walking. But they weren’t looking at him either.
Ridley was a step behind the rest of us, letting her long pink nails trail along the locker doors. When she got to Emory’s, she let the door close beneath her fingers.
“Hey, girls.” The way Ridley rolled out the words, she still sounded like a Siren.
Emory stammered, and Ridley let her finger trail across his chest as she walked past. In that skirt, she was showing more leg than should have been legal. The entire team turned to watch her go.
“Who’s your friend?” Emory was talking to Link, but he didn’t take his eyes off Ridley. He’d seen her before—at the Stop & Steal when I first met her, and at the winter formal, when she trashed the gym—but he was looking for an introduction, up close and personal.
“Who wants to know?” Rid blew a bubble, letting it pop.
Link looked at her sideways and grabbed Ridley’s hand. “Nobody.”
The hallway divided in front of them as an ex-Siren and a quarter Incubus conquered Jackson High. I wondered what Amma would have to say about that.
Sweet baby in a manger. Heaven help us all.
“Are you kidding? I’m supposed to keep my things in this filthy tin coffin?” Ridley stared into her locker like she thought something was going to pop out of it.
“Rid, you’ve been to school before, and you had a locker,” Lena said patiently.
Ridley flipped her pink and blond hair. “I must’ve blocked all that out. Post-traumatic stress.”
Lena handed Ridley the combination lock. “You don’t have to use it. But you can put your books inside so you don’t have to carry them around all day.”
“Books?” Ridley looked disgusted. “Carry?”
Lena sighed. “You’ll get them today, in your classes. And, yes, you have to carry them. You should know how this works.”
Ridley adjusted her shirt to expose a little more shoulder. “I was a Siren the last time I was in school. I didn’t actually go to any of my classes, and I certainly didn’t carry anything.”
Link clapped his hand down on her shoulder. “Come on. We have homeroom together. I’ll show you how it’s done, Link-style.”
“Yeah?” Ridley sounded skeptical. “How is that any better?”
“Well, for starters, it doesn’t involve any books….” Link seemed more than happy to walk her to class. He wanted to keep an eye on her.
“Ridley, wait! You need this.” Lena waved a binder in the air.
Ridley slipped her arm through Link’s and ignored her. “Relax, Cuz. I’ll use Hot Rod’s.”
I slammed the locker shut. “Your gramma is an optimist.”
Like everyone else, I watched Link and Rid disappear down the hall. “I give this whole little experiment three days, max.”
“Three days? You’re the optimist.” Lena sighed, and we started up the stairs to English.
The air conditioning was running full blast, a pathetic mechanical hum echoing through the halls. But the outdated system didn’t stand a chance against this heat wave. It was even hotter upstairs in the administration building than it was outside in the parking lot.
As we walked into English class, I stopped for a minute under the fluorescent light, the one that had burned out when Lena and I had collided on the way into this room the first day I saw her. I stared up at the cardboard squares in the ceiling.
You know, if you look really close, you can still see the burn mark around the new light.
How romantic. The scene of our first disaster. Lena followed my eyes up to the ceiling. I think I see it.
I let my eyes linger on the squares speckled with perforated dots. How many times had I sat in class staring up at those dots, trying to stay awake or counting them to pass time? Counting minutes left in a class period, periods left in the day—days into weeks, weeks into months, until I got out of Gatlin?
Lena walked by Mrs. English, who was buried in first day of school papers at her desk, and slid into her old seat on the infamous Good-Eye Side.
I started to follow her, but I sensed someone behind me. It was that feeling you get when you’re in line and the person after you is standing way too close. I turned around, but no one was there.
Lena was already writing in her notebook when I sat down at the desk next to hers. I wondered if she was writing one of her poems. I was about to sneak a look when I heard it. The voice was faint, and it wasn’t Lena’s. It was a low whisper, coming from over my shoulder.
I turned around. The seat behind me was empty.
Did you say something, L?
Lena looked up from the notebook, surprised.
Were you Kelting? I thought I heard something.
She shook her head.
No. Are you okay?
I nodded, opening my binder. I heard the voice again. This time I recognized the words. The letters appeared on the page, in my handwriting.
I slammed it shut, clenching my hands to stop them from shaking.
Lena looked up at me.
Are you sure you’re okay?
I didn’t look up once for the rest of the period. I didn’t look up while I failed the quiz on The Crucible. Not when Lena participated, straight-faced, in a class discussion about the Salem witch trials. Or when Emily Asher made a less than clever comparison between dear, departed Macon Ravenwood and the possessed townsfolk in the play, and a ceiling tile suddenly came loose and smacked her on the head.
I didn’t look up again until the bell rang.
Mrs. English was staring at me, her expression so unnerving and blank that for a second I thought both her eyes could have been glass.
I tried to tell myself that it was the first day of school, which could make anyone crazy. That she’d probably just had a bad cup of coffee.
But this was Gatlin, so there was a pretty good chance I was wrong.
Once English was over, Lena and I didn’t have any other classes together until after lunch. I was in Trig and Lena was in Calculus. Link—and now Ridley—had been bumped down to Consumer Math, the class the teachers enrolled you in when they finally admitted you weren’t going to make it past Algebra II. Everyone called it Burger Math because all you learned was how to make change. Link’s whole schedule read like the teachers had decided he was going to be working at the BP station with Ed after graduation. His schedule was basically one big study hall. I had Bio; he had Rocks for Jocks. I had World History; he had CSS—Cultures of Southern States, or “Checking Out Savannah Snow,” as he called it. Compared to Link, I looked like a rocket scientist. He didn’t seem to care—or if he did, there were too many girls following him around for him to notice.
To be honest, it didn’t matter, because all I wanted to do was get lost in the familiar blur of the first day of school so I could forget about the crazy message in my binder.
I guess there’s nothing like a crappy summer filled with near-death experiences to make the first day of school seem great in comparison. Until I got to the cafeteria, where it was sloppy joe day. Of course it was. Nothing said first day of school like sloppy joes.
I found Lena and Ridley easily enough. They were sitting alone at one of the orange lunch tables, with a steady stream of guys circling like vultures. Everyone had heard about Ridley by now, and all the guys wanted to check her out.
Ridley tilted her head toward the back of the lunchroom, where Link was moving from table to table like he was the MVP at the state championship or something. I noticed her tray, full of chocolate pudding, red Jell-O cubes, and slices of dry-looking angel food cake. “Hungry, Rid?”
“What can I say, Boyfriend? Girl’s got a sweet tooth.” She picked up a bowl of pudding and dug in.
“Don’t tease her. She’s having a bad day,” Lena said.
“Really? That’s a shocker.” I bit into my first deflated sloppy joe. “What happened?”
Lena glanced back at one of the tables. “That happened.”
Link had one foot up on the plastic bench, and he was leaning over the table, talking to the cheer squad. His attention focused on one cheer captain in particular.
“Aw, that’s nothing. Just Link being Link. You don’t have anything to worry about, Rid.”
“Like I’m worried,” she snapped. “I could care less what he does.” But I looked down at her tray, and four of the pudding bowls were already empty. “I’m not coming back tomorrow, anyway. This whole school thing is moronic. You move around from room to room like herds or flocks or—”
“Schools?” I couldn’t resist.
“That’s what I’m talking about.” Ridley rolled her eyes, annoyed that I couldn’t keep up.
“I was talking about fish. A group of fish is called a school. If you went to school you’d know that.” I ducked to avoid her spoon.
“That isn’t the point.” Lena shot me a warning look.
“The point is, you’re sort of a solo act,” I said, trying to sound sympathetic. Ridley went back to her pudding with a serious level of sugar dedication I respected. She didn’t take her eyes off Link.
“Actually trying to make someone like you is totally demeaning. It’s pathetic. It’s…”
“Exactly.” She shuddered, moving on to the Jell-O.
A few minutes later, Link worked his way over to our table. He dropped down next to Ridley, and the side of the table where Lena and I were sitting lifted right off the ground. At 6'2", I was one of the tallest guys at Jackson, but I only had an inch or so on Link now.
“Hey, man. Take it easy.”
Link eased up a little, and our side of the table smacked down against the linoleum. People were staring. “Sorry. I keep forgettin’. I’m Transitioning. Mr. Ravenwood said this would be a rough time, when you’re the new kid on the block.”
Lena kicked me under the table, trying not to laugh.
Ridley was less subtle. “I think all this sugar is making me sick. Oh wait, did I say sugar? I meant sap.” She looked at Link. “And when I said sap, I meant you.”
Link smiled. This was the Ridley he liked best. “Your uncle said no one would understand.”
“Yeah, I bet it’s really tough being the Hulk.” I was kidding, but I wasn’t far off.
“Dude, it’s no joke. I can’t sit down for more than five minutes or people start throwing their food at me, like they expect me to eat it.”
“Well, you did have a reputation for being a human garbage disposal.”
“I could still eat if I wanted to.” He looked disgusted. “But food doesn’t taste like anything. It’s like chewin’ on cardboard. I’m on the Macon Ravenwood diet. You know, snackin’ on a few dreams here and there.”
“Whose dreams?” If Link was feeding off my dreams, I was going to kick his ass. They were confusing enough without him.
“No way. Your head’s too full a crazy for me. But you wouldn’t believe what Savannah dreams about. Let’s just say she’s not thinking about the state finals.”
No one wanted to hear the details—especially not Ridley, who was stabbing at her Jell-O. I tried to spare her. “That’s a visual I can live without, thanks.”
“It’s cool. But you’ll never guess what I saw.” If he said Savannah in her underwear, he was a dead man.
Lena was thinking the same thing. “Link, I don’t think—”
“What?” It wasn’t the answer Lena was expecting.
“Barbies, but not the ones girls had in elementary school. These puppies are all dressed up. She’s got a bride, Miss America, Snow White. And they’re in this big glass case.”
“I knew she reminded me of a Barbie.” Ridley stabbed another cube.
Link slid closer to her. “You still ignorin’ me?”
“You’re not worth the time it takes to ignore.” Ridley stared through the jiggling red cube. “I don’t think Kitchen makes this. What’s it called again?”
“Jell-O Surprise.” Link grinned.
“What’s the surprise?” Ridley examined the red gelatin more closely.
“What they put in it.” He flicked the cube with his finger, and she pulled it away.
“Ground-up hooves, hides, and bones. Surprise.”
Ridley looked at him, shrugged, and put the spoon in her mouth. She wasn’t going to give him an inch. Not as long as he was creeping around Savannah Snow’s bedroom at night and flirting with her all day.
Link looked over at me. “So, you wanna shoot some hoops after school?”
“No.” I shoved the rest of the sloppy joe into my mouth.
“I can’t believe you’re eating that. You hate those things.”
“I know. But they’re pretty good today.” A Jackson first. When Amma’s cooking was off and the cafeteria’s was on, maybe it really was the End of Days.
You know, you can play basketball if you want to.
Lena was offering me something, the same thing Link was. A chance to make peace with my former friends, to be less of an outcast, if that was possible. But it was too late. Your friends were supposed to stand by you, and now I knew who my friends really were. And who they weren’t.
I don’t want to.
“Come on. It’s cool. All that crazy stuff with the guys is history.” Link believed what he was saying. But history was hard to forget when it included tormenting your girlfriend all year.
“Yeah. People around here aren’t into history.”
Even Link caught my sarcasm. “Well, I’m gonna hit the court.” He didn’t look at me. “I might even go back on the team. I mean, it’s not like I was really off.”
Not like you. That’s the part he didn’t say.
“It’s really hot in here.” Sweat was dripping down my back. So many people, crammed into one room.
No. Yeah. I just need to get some air.
I stood up to go, but the door looked like it was a mile away.
This school had a way of making you feel small. As small as it was, maybe even smaller. I guess some things never change.
Turns out, Ridley wasn’t interested in studying the cultures of the Southern states any more than she was interested in Link studying Savannah Snow, and five minutes into the period she convinced him they should switch to World History. Which wouldn’t have surprised me except switching classes usually involved taking your schedule to Miss Hester—then lying and begging and, if you were really stuck, crying. So when Link and Ridley showed up in World History and he told me that his schedule had miraculously changed, I was more than suspicious.
“What do you mean, your schedule changed?”
Link dropped his notebook onto the desk next to me and shrugged. “I don’t know. One minute Savannah sits down next to me, then Ridley comes in and sits on the other side, and the next thing I know, World History’s printed on my schedule. Rid’s, too. She shows the teacher, and we get kicked right outta class.”
“How did you manage that?” I asked as Ridley settled into her seat.
“Manage what?” She looked at me innocently, clicking and un-clicking her creepy scorpion belt buckle.
Lena wasn’t letting her off that easy. “You know what he’s talking about. Did you take a book from Uncle Macon’s study?”
“Are you actually accusing me of reading?”
Lena lowered her voice. “Were you trying to Cast? It’s not safe, Ridley.”
“You mean not safe for me. Because I’m a stupid Mortal.”
“Casting is dangerous for Mortals, unless you’ve had years of training, like Marian. Which you haven’t.” Lena wasn’t trying to rub it in, but every time she said the word “Mortal,” Ridley cringed. It was like pouring gasoline on a fire.
Maybe it was too hard to hear from a Caster. I jumped in. “Lena’s right. Who knows what could happen if something went wrong?”
Ridley didn’t say a word, and for a second it seemed like I had single-handedly put out the flames. But as she turned to face me, her blue eyes blazing as bright as her yellow ones ever had, I realized how wrong I was.
“I don’t remember anyone complaining when you and your little British Marian-in-training were Casting at the Great Barrier.”
Lena blushed and looked away.
Ridley was right. Liv and I had Cast at the Great Barrier. It was how we freed Macon from the Arclight, and why Liv would never be a Keeper. And it was a painful reminder of a time when Lena and I were as far away from each other as two people could be.
I didn’t say anything. Instead I stumbled over my thoughts, crashing and burning in the silence while Mr. Littleton tried to convince us how fascinating World History was going to be. He failed. I tried to come up with something to say that would rescue me from the awkwardness of the next ten seconds. I failed.
Because even though Liv wasn’t at Jackson, and she spent all her days in the Tunnels with Macon, she was still the elephant in the room. The thing Lena and I didn’t talk about. I had only seen Liv once since the night of the Seventeenth Moon, and I missed her. Not like I could tell anyone that.
I missed her crazy British accent, and the way she mispronounced Carolina so it sounded like Carolin-er. I missed her selenometer that looked like a giant plastic watch from thirty years ago, and the way she was always writing in her tiny red notebook. I missed the way we joked around and the way she made fun of me. I missed my friend.
The sad part was, she probably would have understood.
I just couldn’t tell her.
Off Route 9
After school, Link stayed to play basketball with the guys. Ridley wouldn’t leave without him as long as the cheer squad was in the gym, even though she wouldn’t admit it.
I stood inside the gym doors and watched Link dribble down the court without breaking a sweat. I watched him sink the ball from the paint, from the top of the key, from the three-point mark, from center court. I watched the other guys stand there with their mouths hanging open. I watched Coach sit back on the bleachers with his whistle still stuck in his mouth. I enjoyed every minute, almost as much as Link.
“You miss it?” Lena was watching me from the doorway.
I shook my head. “No way. I don’t want to hang out with the rest of those guys.” I smiled. “And for once, no one’s looking at us.” I held out my hand and she took it. Hers was warm and soft.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said.
Boo Radley was sitting at the corner of the lot by the stop sign, panting like there wasn’t enough air in the world to cool him off. I wondered if Macon was still watching us and everyone else through the Caster dog’s eyes. We pulled up next to him and opened the door. Boo didn’t even hesitate.
We drove up Route 9, where Gatlin’s houses disappeared and turned into rows of fields. This time of year, those fields were usually a mix of green and brown—corn and tobacco. But this year there was nothing but black and yellow, as far as the eye could see—dead plants, and lubbers eating their way right onto the road. You could hear them crunching beneath the tires. It looked wrong.
It was the other thing we didn’t like to talk about. The apocalypse that had settled over Gatlin in place of fall. Link’s mom was convinced that the heat wave and the bugs were the results of the wrath of God, but I knew she was wrong. At the Great Barrier, Abraham Ravenwood had promised that Lena’s choice would affect both the Caster and Mortal worlds. He wasn’t kidding.
Lena stared out the window, her eyes locked on the ravaged fields. There was nothing I could say that would make her feel any better, or less responsible. The only thing I could do was try to distract her. “Today was crazy, even for the first day of school.”
“I feel bad for Ridley.” Lena pushed her hair up off her shoulders, twisting it into a messy knot. “She’s not herself.”
“Which means she’s not an evil Siren secretly working for Sarafine. How sorry should I be?”
“She seems so lost.”
“My prediction? She’s gonna mess with Link’s head again.”
Lena bit her lip. “Yeah, well. Ridley still thinks she’s a Siren. Messing with people is part of the job description.”
“I bet she’ll bring down the whole cheer-amid before she’s done.”
“Then she’ll get expelled,” Lena said.
I pulled off at the crossroads, turning off Route 9 and onto the road to Ravenwood. “Not before she burns Jackson to the ground.”
The oak trees grew and arched over the road leading up to Lena’s house, bringing the temperature down a degree or two.
The breeze from the open window blew through Lena’s dark curls. “I don’t think Ridley can stand being in the house. My whole family is acting crazy. Aunt Del doesn’t know if she’s coming or going.”
“That’s nothing new.”
“Yesterday Aunt Del thought Ryan was Reece.”
“And Reece?” I asked.
“Reece’s powers have been all over the place. She’s always complaining about it. Sometimes she looks at me and freaks out, and I don’t know if it’s because of something she’s read in my face or because she can’t read anything at all.”
Reece was already cranky enough, under normal circumstances.
“At least you have your uncle.”
“Sort of. Every day Uncle Macon disappears into the Tunnels, and he won’t say what he’s doing down there. Like he doesn’t want me to know.”
“How is that weird? He and Amma never want us to know anything.” I tried to act like I wasn’t worried even as the tires rolled over more lubbers.
“He’s been back for weeks now, and I still don’t know what kind of Caster he is. I mean, except Light. He won’t talk about it, not to anyone.” Not even me. That’s what she was saying.
“Maybe he doesn’t know himself.”
“Forget it.” She looked out the window, and I took her hand. We were both so hot I could barely feel the burn of her touch.
“Can you talk to your grandma?”
“Gramma spends half her time in Barbados, trying to figure things out.” Lena didn’t say what she really meant. Her family was trying to find a way to restore the Order—banish the heat and the lubbers and whatever we had to look forward to in the Mortal world. “Ravenwood has more Binding spells on it than a Caster prison. It’s so claustrophobic that I feel as Bound as the house. It gives new meaning to being grounded.” Lena shook her head. “I keep hoping Ridley doesn’t feel it, now that she’s a Mortal.”
I didn’t say anything, but I was pretty sure Ridley felt it, because I did. As we got closer to the great house, I could feel the magic—buzzing like it was a live power line, the weight of a thick fog that had nothing to do with the weather.
The atmosphere of Caster magic, Dark and Light.
I had been able to sense it ever since we came back from the Great Barrier. And when I pulled up to the crooked iron gates that marked the boundaries of Ravenwood, the air around us crackled, almost as charged as an electrical storm.
The gates themselves weren’t the real barrier. Ravenwood’s gardens, so overgrown while Macon was gone, were the one place in the whole county that was a refuge from the heat and the bugs. Maybe it was a testament to the power of Lena’s family, but as we passed through the gates, I could feel the energy from outside pulling one way while Ravenwood pulled the other. Ravenwood was standing its ground—you could tell by the way the endless brown outside its grounds gave way to green within, the way the gardens remained uneaten, untouched. Macon’s flower beds were blooming and brilliant, his trees trimmed and orderly, the broad green lawns clipped close and clean, stretching down from the great house to the Santee River. Even the paths were lined with new gravel. But the outside world was pushing against the gates and the Casts and Bindings keeping Ravenwood safe. Like waves crashing on the rocks, battering the same reef over and over, eroding a few grains of sand at a time.
Eventually, waves always get their way. If the Order of Things was really broken, Ravenwood couldn’t remain the only outpost of a lost world for long.
I pulled the hearse up to the house, and before I could say a word, we were out of the car and into the damp air outside. Lena threw herself onto the cool grass, and I dropped down next to her. I’d been waiting for this moment all day, and I felt sorry for Amma and my dad and the rest of Gatlin, trapped in town beneath the burning blue sky. I didn’t know how much more of this I could take.
Crap. I didn’t mean—
I know. You’re not blaming me. It’s all right.
She moved closer, reaching for my face with her hand. I braced myself. My heart didn’t just race anymore when we touched. Now I could feel the energy draining from my body, as if it was being sucked out. But she hesitated and let her hand drop. “This is my fault. I know you don’t feel like you can say it, but I can.”
She rolled onto her back and stared at the sky. “Late at night I lie in bed, close my eyes, and try to break through it. Try to pull the clouds in and push the heat away. You don’t know how hard it is. How much it takes from all of us to keep Ravenwood like this.” She picked a blade of green grass. “Uncle Macon says he doesn’t know what will happen next. Gramma says it’s impossible to know, because this has never happened before.”
“Do you believe them?”
When it came to Lena, Macon was about as forthcoming as Amma was with me. If there was something she could have done differently, he’d be the last person to tell her.
“I don’t know. But this is bigger than Gatlin. Whatever I did, it’s affecting other Casters outside of my family. Everyone’s powers are misfiring like mine.”
“Your powers have never been predictable.”
Lena looked away. “Spontaneous combustion is a little more than unpredictable.”
I knew she was right. Gatlin was teetering dangerously on the edge of an invisible cliff, and we had no idea what was at the bottom. But I couldn’t say that to her—not when she was the one responsible for putting it there. “We’ll figure out what’s going on.”
“I’m not so sure.” She held one hand up to the sky, and I thought back to the first time I followed her into the garden at Greenbrier. I had watched her tracing clouds with her fingertips, making shapes in the sky. I hadn’t known then what I was getting myself into, but it wouldn’t have mattered.
Everything had changed, even the sky. This time there wasn’t a cloud to trace. There was nothing but the threatening blue heat.
Lena raised her other hand and looked over at me. “This isn’t going to stop. Things are going to keep getting worse. We have to be ready.” She pulled on the sky with her hands absentmindedly, twisting the air slowly, like taffy between her fingers. “Sarafine and Abraham aren’t going to just walk away.”
She looped her finger through the air. “Ethan, I want you to know that I’m not afraid of anything, anymore.”
I’m not either. Not as long as we’re together.
“That’s the thing. If something happens, it will be because of me. And I’ll have to be the one to fix it. Do you understand what I’m saying?” She didn’t take her eyes off her fingers.
No. I don’t.
“You don’t? Or you don’t want to?”
“You remember when Amma used to tell you not to pick a hole in the sky or the universe would fall through?”
I smiled. “C. O. N. C. O. M. I. T. A. N. T. Eleven down. As in, you go ahead and pull on that thread and watch the whole world unravel like a sweater, Ethan Wate.”
Lena should’ve been laughing, but she wasn’t. “I pulled on the thread when I used The Book of Moons.”
“Because of me.” I thought about it all the time. She wasn’t the only one of us who had pulled on the one piece of yarn that tied up all of Gatlin County, above and below the surface.
“I Claimed myself.”
“You had to. You should be proud of that.”
“I am.” She hesitated.
“But?” I watched her carefully.
“But I’m going to have to pay a price, and I’m ready to.”
I closed my eyes. “Don’t talk like that.”
“I’m being realistic.”
“You’re waiting for something bad to happen.” I didn’t want to think about it.
Lena played with the charms on her necklace. “It’s not really a question of if but when.”
I’m waiting. That’s what the notebook said.
I didn’t want her to know, but now I couldn’t stop it. And I couldn’t pretend we could go back to the way things were.
The wrongness of everything came crashing down on me. The summer. Macon’s death. Lena acting like a stranger. Running away with John Breed, and away from me. And then the rest of it, the part that happened before I met Lena—my mom not coming home, her shoes sitting where she’d left them, her towel still damp from the morning. Her side of the bed not slept in, the smell of her hair still on her pillow.
The mail that still came addressed in her name.
The suddenness of it all. And the permanence. The lonely reality of the truth—that the most important person in your life suddenly ceased to exist. Which on a bad day meant maybe she had never existed at all. And on a good day, there was the other fear. That even if you were a hundred percent sure she had been there, maybe you were the only one who cared or remembered.
How can a pillow smell like a person who isn’t even on the same planet as you anymore? And what do you do when one day the pillow just smells like any old pillow, a strange pillow? How can you bring yourself to put away those shoes?
But I had. And I had seen my mother’s Sheer at Bonaventure Cemetery. For the first time in my life, I believed something actually happened when you died. My mom wasn’t alone in the dirt in His Garden of Perpetual Peace, the way I’d always been afraid she was. I was letting her go. At least, I was close.
Ethan? What’s going on?
I wished I knew.
“I’m not going to let anything happen to you. No one will.” I said the words even though I knew I wasn’t capable of protecting her. I said them because I felt like my heart was going to rip itself to shreds all over again.
“I know,” she lied. Lena didn’t say anything else, but she knew what I was feeling.
She pulled down the sky with her hands, as hard as she could, like she wanted to rip it away from the sun.
I heard a loud cracking sound.
I didn’t know where it came from, and I didn’t know how long it would last, but the blue sky broke open, and though there wasn’t a cloud in sight, we let the rain fall on our faces.
I felt the wet grass, and the raindrops in my eyes. They felt real. I felt my sweaty clothes dampening instead of drying. I pulled her close and held her face in my hands. Then I kissed her until I wasn’t the only one who was breathless, and the ground beneath us dried and the sky was harsh and blue again.
Dinner was Amma’s prizewinning chicken potpie. My portion alone was the size of my plate, or maybe home plate. I punctured the biscuit crust with my fork, letting the steam escape. I could smell the good sherry, her secret ingredient. Every potpie in our county had a secret ingredient: sour cream, soy sauce, cayenne pepper, even parmesan cheese straight out of the shaker. Secrets and piecrust went hand in hand around here. Slap a piecrust up top and all the folks in town will kill themselves trying to figure out what’s hiding underneath.
“Ah. That smell still makes me feel about eight years old.” My dad smiled at Amma, who ignored both the comment and his suspiciously good mood. Now that the semester had started up again at the university, and he was sitting there in his collared teaching shirt, he looked downright normal. You could almost forget the year he spent sleeping all day, holed up in his office all night “writing” a book that amounted to nothing more than hundreds of pages of scribble. Barely speaking or eating, until he started the steep, slow climb back to sanity. Or maybe it was the smell of the pies going to work on me, too. I dug deep.
“You have a good first day of school, Ethan?” my dad asked, his mouth full.
I examined the pie on my fork. “Good enough.”
Everything was chopped up real small, underneath the dough. You couldn’t tell diced chicken from diced vegetables in the tiny chaos of mashed-up pie guts. Crap. When Amma had her cleaver out, it was never a good sign. This potpie was evidence of some kind of furious afternoon I didn’t want to imagine. I felt sorry for her scarred cutting board. I looked over at her empty plate and knew she wasn’t about to sit down and make small talk tonight. Or explain why not.
I swallowed. “How about you, Amma?”
She was standing at the kitchen counter tossing a salad so hard I thought she was going to shatter our cracked glass bowl. “Good enough.”
My dad calmly raised his glass of milk. “Well, my day was unbelievable. I woke up with an incredible idea, out of the blue. Must have come to me last night. During my office hours, I wrote up a proposal. I’m going to start a new book.”
“Yeah? That’s great.” I picked up the salad bowl, concentrating on an oily-looking wedge of tomato.
“It’s about the Civil War. I might even find a way to use some of your mom’s old research. I have to talk to Marian about it.”
“What’s the book called, Dad?”
“That’s the part that hit me out of nowhere. I woke up with the words in my head. The Eighteenth Moon. What do you think?”
The bowl slipped out of my hands, hitting the table and shattering on the floor. Torn-up leaves mixed with jagged pieces of broken glass, sparkling across my sneakers and the floorboards.
“Ethan Wate!” Before I could say another word, Amma was there, scooping up the soggy, slippery, dangerous mess. Like always. As I got down on my own hands and knees, I could hear her hissing at me under her breath.
“Not another word.” She might as well have slapped an old piecrust right across my mouth.
What do you think it means, L?
I lay in bed, paralyzed, my face hidden in the pillow. Amma had shut herself up in her room after dinner, which I was pretty sure meant she didn’t know what was going on with my dad either.
I don’t know.
Lena’s Kelting came to me as clearly as if she was sitting next to me on the bed, as usual. And as usual, I wished she really was.
How would he come up with that? Did we say something about the songs in front of him? Have we messed something up?
Something else. That was the part I didn’t say and tried not to think. The answer came quickly.
No, Ethan. We never said anything.
So if he’s talking about the Eighteenth Moon…
The truth hit us at the same time.
It’s because someone wants him to.
It made sense. Dark Casters had already killed my mom. My dad, just getting back on his feet, was an easy mark. And he had been targeted once already, the night of Lena’s Sixteenth Moon. There was no other explanation.
My mother was gone, but she had found a way to guide me by sending the Shadowing Songs, Sixteen Moons and Seventeen Moons, which stayed stuck in my head until I finally started to listen. But this message wasn’t coming from my mom.
L? You think it’s some kind of warning? From Abraham?
Maybe. Or my wonderful mother.
Sarafine. Lena almost never said her name, if she could avoid it. I didn’t blame her.
It has to be one of them, right?
Lena didn’t answer, and I lay there in my bed in the dark silence, hoping it was one of the two. One of the devils we knew, from somewhere in the known Caster world. Because the devils we didn’t know were too terrifying to think about—and the worlds we didn’t know, even worse.
Are you still there, Ethan?
Will you read me something?
I smiled to myself and reached under my bed, pulling out the first book I found. Robert Frost, one of Lena’s favorites. I opened to a random page. “We make ourselves a place apart / Behind light words that tease and flout, / But oh, the agitated heart / Till someone really find us out…”
I didn’t stop reading. I felt the reassuring weight of Lena’s consciousness leaning against mine, as real as if her head was leaning against my shoulder. I wanted to keep her there as long as I could. She made me feel less alone.
Every line felt like it was written about her, at least to me.
As Lena drifted off, I listened to the hum of the crickets until I realized it wasn’t the crickets at all. It was the lubbers. The plague, or whatever Mrs. Lincoln wanted to call it. The longer I listened, the more it sounded like a million buzz saws in the distance, destroying my town and everything around it. Then the lubbers faded into something else—the low chords of a song I would recognize anywhere.
I’d been hearing the songs since before I met Lena. Sixteen Moons had led me to her, the song only I could hear. I couldn’t escape them, any more than Lena could run from her destiny or I could hide from mine. They were warnings from my mom—the person I trusted most, in any world.
Eighteen Moons, eighteen spheres,
From the world beyond the years,
One Unchosen, death or birth,
A Broken Day awaits the Earth…
I tried to make sense of the words, the way I always did. “The world beyond the years” ruled out the Mortal world. But what was coming from this other world—the Eighteenth Moon or the “One Unchosen”? And who could that be?
The only person it ruled out was Lena. She’d made her choice. Which meant there was another choice to be made—by someone who had yet to make one.
But the last line was the one that made me sick. “A Broken Day?” That pretty much covered every day now. How could things possibly get more broken than this?
I wished I had more than a song and that my mom was here to tell me what it meant. More than anything, I wished I knew how to fix everything we had broken.
Glass Houses and Stones
A whole catfish stared at me with glassy eyes, its tail giving a final flop. On one side of the fish was a massive plate piled with slabs of fatty, uncooked bacon. A platter of raw shrimp, translucent and gray, sat on the other side, next to a bowl of dry instant grits. A plate of runny eggs, with bleeding yolks in thick white sauce, was the best of the worst. It was weird, even for Ravenwood, where I sat across from Lena in the formal dining room. Half the food looked like it was ready to get up and run or swim its way off the table. And there wasn’t one thing on the table that anyone in Gatlin would ever eat for breakfast. Especially not me.
I looked back at my empty plate, where chocolate milk had appeared in a tall crystal glass. Sitting next to the runny eggs, the milk wasn’t appealing.
Lena made a face. “Kitchen? Seriously? Again?” I heard an indignant clanging from the other room. Lena had irritated Ravenwood’s mysterious cook, who I’d still never seen. Lena shrugged, looking at me. “I told you. Everything is out of whack around here. It gets worse every day.”
“Come on. We can grab a sticky bun at the Stop & Steal.” I’d lost my appetite around the time I saw the uncooked bacon.
“Kitchen’s doing her best. Life is hard enough lately, I’m afraid. Last night Delphine was pounding on my door in the middle of the night, insisting the British were coming.” A familiar voice, the soft shuffling of slippers, a scraping chair—and there he was. Macon Ravenwood, holding an armful of rolled newspapers, lifting a teacup that was suddenly full of what probably was supposed to be tea but looked like some kind of soupy green muck. Boo stalked in after him and curled up at his master’s feet.
Lena sighed. “Ryan’s crying. She won’t admit it, but she’s afraid she’ll never completely come into her powers now. Uncle Barclay can’t Shift anymore. Aunt Del says he can’t even turn a frown into a smile.”
Macon raised his cup, nodding in my direction. “That can all wait until after breakfast. ‘How do you rate the morning sun,’ Mr. Wate?”
“Excuse me, sir?” It sounded like a trick question.
“Robbie Williams. Quite the songwriter, don’t you think? And quite a relevant question as of late.” He glanced down at his tea before taking a sip, and put the cup down. “My way of saying good morning, I suppose.”
“Morning, sir.” I tried not to stare. He was wearing a black satin robe. At least I thought it was a robe. I’d never seen a robe with a handkerchief sticking out of the chest pocket. It didn’t look anything like my dad’s ratty checkered bathrobe.
Macon caught me staring. “I believe the term you’re searching for is smoking jacket. I find, now that I have whole days of sunshine ahead of me, I’ve discovered there is more to life than formal haberdashery.”
“Uncle M likes to lounge around in his pajamas. That’s what he means.” Lena gave him a kiss on the cheek. “We have to get going or we’ll miss out on the sticky buns. Be nice and I’ll bring you one.”
He sighed. “Hunger is such an incredible inconvenience.”
Lena picked up her backpack. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Macon ignored her, smoothing open the first of his newspapers. “Earthquakes in Paraguay.” He snapped open the next, which appeared to be written in French. “The Seine is drying up.” Another. “The polar ice cap is melting at ten times the predicted rate. If one is to believe the Helsinki press.” A fourth paper. “And the entire southeastern coast of the United States appears to be afflicted by a curious plague of pestilence.”
Lena closed his newspaper, revealing a plate of white bread sitting directly in front of him. “Eat. The world will still be on the brink of disaster when you finish your breakfast. Even in your smoking jacket.”
The darkness in Macon’s expression lifted, the green eyes of an Incubus-turned-Light-Caster blazing a bit lighter at her touch. Lena gave him a smile, the one she saved only for him. The smile that said she had noticed all of it—every minute of their life together. What they had, they knew. Since Macon had basically come back to her from the dead, Lena hadn’t taken a minute they shared for granted. I never doubted that, though I envied it.
It was what I’d had with my mom—and now I didn’t. I wondered if I had smiled differently when I looked at her. I wondered if she’d known that I had noticed it all, too. That I knew she’d read every book I was reading, just so we could talk about it over dinner at our old oak table. That I knew she’d spent hours at the Blue Bicycle bookstore in Charleston, trying to find the right book for me.
“Come on!” Lena motioned, and I shook loose the memory and picked up my backpack. She gave her uncle a quick hug. “Ridley!” she called up the stairs. A muffled groan floated down from one of the bedrooms. “Now!”
“Sir.” I folded my napkin and stood up.
Macon’s relaxed expression vanished. “Be careful out there.”
“I’ll keep an eye on her.”
“Thank you, Mr. Wate. I know you will.” He lowered his cup. “But you be careful yourself. Things are a bit more complicated than they might seem.” The town was falling apart, and we’d pretty much broken the whole world. I wasn’t sure how things could get any more complicated than that.
“Careful of what, sir?” The table was quiet between us, even though I could hear Lena and Gramma arguing with Ridley in the hallway.
Macon looked down at his pile of newspapers, smoothing open the last one, in a language I’d never seen and yet somehow recognized.
“I wish I knew.”
After breakfast at Ravenwood, if you could call it that, the day only got weirder. We were late for school because when we got to Link’s house to pick him up, his mom caught him dumping his breakfast in the trash and made him sit through a second one. Then, when we drove by the Stop & Steal, Fatty, Jackson’s faithful truant officer, wasn’t sitting in his car eating a sticky bun and reading the paper. And there were half a dozen buns left in the bakery section. That had to be the first sign of the apocalypse. But even more unbelievable, we walked into the administration building twenty minutes late, and Miss Hester wasn’t at the front desk to give us detention. Her purple nail polish sat in front of her office chair, unopened. Like the whole world had somehow rotated five degrees in the wrong direction.
“This is our lucky day.” Link put up his fist, and I tapped his knuckles against mine. I would have gone with freaky.
It was confirmed when I caught a glimpse of Ridley wandering toward the bathroom. I could’ve sworn she had changed into a regular girl, wearing weirdly regular-girl clothes. And finally, when I slid into my seat next to Lena, on what should have been Mrs. English’s Good-Eye Side, I found myself in the Twilight Zone of classroom seating charts.
I was sitting where I always did. It was the room that had changed, or Mrs. English, who spent the whole period grilling students on the wrong side of the room.
“ ‘This is a sharp time, now, a precise time—we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world.’ ” Mrs. English looked up. “Miss Asher? How dusky a time would Arthur Miller think we live in today?”
Emily stared at her, shocked. “Ma’am? Don’t you mean to be asking—them?” Emily looked over at Abby Porter, Lena, and me, the only people who ever sat on the Good-Eye Side.
“I mean to be asking anyone who expects to pass my class, Miss Asher. Now answer the question.”
Maybe she put her glass eye in the wrong side this morning.
Lena smiled without looking up from her paper.
“Um, I think Arthur Miller would be majorly psyched that we aren’t all so messed up anymore.”
I peeked over my copy of The Crucible. And as Emily stammered to condemn a witch hunt not much different from the one she had all but led herself, that glass eye was staring straight at me.
As if it could not only see me but see right through me.
By the time school let out, things were starting to feel more normal. Ethan-Hating Emily hissed when I walked by, trailed by Eden and Charlotte, third and fourth in command, like the good old days. Ridley figured out that Lena had Cast a Facies Celata on her, Charming her Siren clothes so they appeared to be regular clothes. Now Ridley was back to her old self, black leather and pink stripes—revenge, vendettas, and all. Worse, as soon as the bell rang, she dragged both of us to basketball practice to watch Link’s scrimmage.
This time there was no hanging out in the doorway of the gym. Ridley wasn’t happy until we were sitting front and center. It was painful. Link wasn’t even on the court, and I had to watch my old teammates screwing up plays I used to run. But Lena and Ridley were bickering like sisters, and there was more going on in the stands than on the court. At least, until I saw Link get up from the bench.
“You Cast a Facies on me? Like I was some kind of Mortal?” Ridley was practically shrieking. “Like I wouldn’t know? So now you think I’m not only powerless but stupid?”
“It wasn’t my idea. Gramma told me to do it after she saw what you were wearing at the house.” Lena looked embarrassed.
Ridley’s face was as pink as the streaks in her hair. “It’s a free world. At least, it is outside of Gat-Dung. You can’t use your powers to dress people however you want. Especially not like that.” She shuddered. “I’m not one of Savannah Snow’s Barbie dolls.”
“Rid. You don’t have to be like them. But you don’t have to try so hard to be so different.”
“Same thing,” Ridley snapped.
“Look at that herd and tell me why I should care what those people think of me.”
Ridley had a point. As Link moved up and down the court, the eyes of the entire cheer squad were glued to him as if they were one person. Which, basically, they were. I didn’t even watch the court after a while. I already knew Link could probably hit a jumper from the stands, with his superstrength.
Ethan, he’s jumping too high.
By about three feet. Lena was stressing, but I knew Link had been fantasizing about this moment his entire life.
And running too fast.
Aren’t you going to say something?
Nothing was going to stop him. Word had gotten around that Link had kicked up his game over the summer, and it seemed like half the school had shown up at practice to see for themselves. I couldn’t decide if it was further proof of how boring life was in Gatlin, or how bad our new Linkubus was at Mortal camouflage.
Savannah had the cheerleaders up and moving. To be fair, it was their practice, too. But to be fair to the rest of us, we weren’t exactly expecting Savannah’s new routines. From the looks of it, Emily, Eden, and Charlotte weren’t expecting them either. Emily didn’t even get off the bench.
From the sidelines, Savannah was jumping almost as high as Link. “Give me an L!”
“You’re not serious.” Lena almost spit out her soda.
You could hear Savannah across the gym. “Give me an I!”
I shook my head. “Oh, she’s serious. There’s nothing ironic about Savannah Snow.”
“Give me an N!”
“We are never going to hear the end of this.” Lena looked at Ridley. She was chewing gum like Ronnie Weeks slapping on nicotine patches when he quit smoking. The more Savannah jumped, the harder Ridley chewed.
“Give me a K!”
“Give me a break.” Ridley spit out her gum and stuck it underneath the bench. Before we could stop her, she was climbing over the aluminum bleachers, down to the court—superhigh sandals, pink-striped hair, black miniskirt, and all.
“Oh no.” Lena started to get up, but I pulled her back down.
“You can’t stop it from happening, L.”
“What is she doing?” Lena couldn’t bear to look.
Ridley was talking to Savannah, tightening the low-slung belt with the poisonous insect trapped in it, like a gladiator gearing up for battle. At first I strained to listen, but within seconds they were shouting.
“What’s your problem?” Savannah snapped.
Ridley grinned. “Nothing. Oh, wait… you.”
Savannah dropped her pom-poms on the gym floor. “You’re a skank. If you want to lure some other guy into your skanky trap, be my guest. But Link is one of us.”
“Here’s the thing, Barbie. I’ve already trapped him, and since I’m trying to play nice, this is me giving you fair warning. Back off before you get hurt.”
Savannah crossed her arms over her chest. “Make me.”
It looked like they needed a ref.
Lena covered her eyes. “Are they fighting?”
“Uh—more like cheering, I think.” I pulled Lena’s hand from her eyes. “You have to see this for yourself.”
Ridley had one thumb hooked over her belt, the other shaking a lone, borrowed pom-pom like it was a dead skunk. The squad was next to her, climbing into their standard pyramid formation—Savannah leading the way.
Link stopped running down the court. Everyone did.
L, I don’t know if this is the right time for payback.
Lena didn’t take her eyes off Ridley.
I’m not doing anything. But someone is.
Savannah was smiling from the base. Emily scowled as she climbed to the top. The other girls followed almost mechanically.
Ridley waved a drooping pom-pom over her head.
Link dribbled the ball in place. Waiting, like the rest of us who knew Ridley, for the terrible thing that hadn’t happened yet but would any second now.
L, you think Ridley—?
It’s impossible. She’s not a Caster anymore. She doesn’t have any powers.
“Give me an”—Ridley shook her pom-pom halfheartedly—“R.”
Emily wobbled at the top of the pyramid.
Ridley called out again. “Um, and an I?”
A shudder went through the team, like they were doing the wave in pyramid formation.
“And then, let’s go with a D.” Ridley dropped the pom-pom. Emily’s eyes widened. Link held the ball in one hand. “What does it spell, Cheerlosers?” Ridley winked.
I started to move before I saw it happen.
“Rid?” Link shouted at her, but she didn’t look back at him.
Lena was halfway over the bench, on her way down to the court.
I was right behind her, but there was no way to stop it.
It was too late.
The pyramid collapsed on top of Savannah.
Everything happened really quickly after that, like Gatlin wanted to fast-forward the whole story from breaking news to ancient history. An ambulance picked up Savannah and took her to the hospital, over in Summerville. People were saying it was a miracle Emily hadn’t been killed, falling all the way from the top. Half the school kept repeating the words spinal injury, which was only a rumor, because Emily seemed about as full of backbone as ever. Apparently Savannah cushioned her fall, as if she had selflessly martyred herself for the greater good of the team. That was the story, anyway.
Link went to the hospital to check on her. I think he felt as guilty as if he’d beaten Savannah up himself. But the official diagnosis, according to Link’s call from the lobby, was “good an’ banged up,” and by the time Savannah sent her mom home for her makeup, everyone involved was feeling better. It probably helped that, the way Link told it, the whole cheer squad was there asking him who he thought had been friends with Savannah the longest.
Link was still relaying the details. “The girls’ll be all right. They’ve sorta been takin’ turns sittin’ on my lap.”
Excerpted from Beautiful Chaos by Garcia, Kami Copyright © 2011 by Garcia, Kami. Excerpted by permission.
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