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I don’t have time to think. All I do is react. And even that is out of my control.
Garrett’s hands are coming at my neck. The rings inside me spin wildly and explode open, deploying the protective bubble like an air bag. My feet move automatically, in order to avoid Garrett’s attack, sliding to the side. My body follows in alignment, but fighting Garrett isn’t like fighting Jen and Regina. Garrett follows and adjusts too.
He dives and I move, in an intricate dance of speed, barely missing one another, although we do miss. His fingers are nearly in my hair, but I am gone before he can close his hand on even one strand. We continue like this, our actions gaining in such speed that I am chased out of my own body to avoid the dizziness of movement within my own skin.
I stand outside myself, watching Garrett and I shift around one another like lightening-fast puzzle pieces, with my piece unwilling to align. As Garrett makes another grab for me, I duck. He follows into my crouch and grabs for my ankle, but I stay a centimeter out of his grasp.
“Don’t be scared!” Garrett shouts as he strikes out for my un-casted wrist. The thought hadn’t occurred to me until his words tether it in my head and I hesitate. I should be frightened. As I’m trying to decide whether to run or stay and fight, Garrett strikes again at my wrist. Instead of letting my body stream out of his range this time, my split second of doubt gives Garrett the advantage and his hand clamps down on my skin. In the second before he catches me, the bubble sucks me back into myself and with Garrett hanging on, we both tumble to the ground in a heap.
I wrench his hand off and jump to my feet, but Garrett doesn’t move from the ground. He is panting, with a grin spread across his face.
“You never bring fear to a fight,” he says. An impulse, rather than an instinct, is what raises my foot. I swing to kick him in the side, but Garrett grabs the toe of my shoe in his palm and gives me a tiny push that knocks me backward, onto the ground. I fall with a horrible grunt flat on my back, the wind knocked out of my lungs. Garrett smiles at me. I catch my breath in a gasp and begin coughing as he rolls onto the balls of his feet beside me.
“Are you okay?” he asks, reaching for me. I knock his hand away and narrow my eyes on him.
“What is wrong with you?” I cough. Garrett searches my face with open curiosity.
“You still don’t know, do you?” he asks. “You have no idea what you are.”
“I’m a girl. A girl you’re trying to fight...”
“No, Nalena,” he interrupts softly, his eyes wide with excitement. “You’re Contego. Like me. That’s what you are.”
Whatever a Contego is, it sounds like a disease.
I don’t let him help me up, so he backs away, seeming to understand that I don’t really trust him anymore. He takes four steps back, offering a comfortable amount of distance between us as I dust myself off. Even so, I never completely take my eyes off of him, in case he decides to jump me again. His face is filled with concern that seems wildly out of place, considering that moments ago he was bent on attacking me. His fingers stay passively tucked in his front pockets.
“Do you understand why I did that?” he asks.
“I don’t care,” I tell him.
“I only did it to be completely positive of what you are.”
“Nice,” I snap, “glad you’re happy. And what would’ve happened if you were wrong?”
“Nothing.” His shoulders rise in a gentle shrug. “If I was wrong about you, I would’ve known right away because it would’ve been easy to grab you, that’s all.”
“Or bash my head in.”
“I would never hurt you.” His voice grows solid, almost angry with my accusation. He takes a breath before beginning again. “If you don’t know anything else about me, know that, Nalena. I’d never hurt you.”
“That’s funny, because you sure acted like you were going to.”
“I wanted to see if you were frightened. I had to. It was part of making sure of what you are. Fear is a common mistake, when you haven’t been trained to avoid it. The Contego learn to overcome it.” He searches my expression and I see desperation in him, a plead for me to understand. His sincerity sends a wave of regret through me and I struggle to remind myself of what he just did to me. “When you’re scared, it shuts you down. You have to have faith in what you’re doing or you instantly fail.”
“Whatever a Contego is, I’m not that,” I say. The excitement on his face disappears. He takes another step toward me and when I don’t react, he closes the gap between us, reaching out to cup my upper arm.
“You’re overwhelmed, aren’t you,” he says. It’s not a question. Something in his voice, instead of the raw current in his hand, holds me still. “Contego is one of the four blood lines of the Ianua. Look, I can even prove that I know what you’re going through. You’ve felt the gears of an engine spinning inside of you, right?”
Gears of an engine sound a lot like what has been happening inside of me and there’s no way he could know about the whirring. I’ve kept it to myself so entirely that my mom doesn’t even know. I suddenly feel lost at the end of Garrett’s touch.
“You know what I mean, don’t you?” Garrett asks, coaxing out the recognition that is uncurling inside of me. All of this is connected…my mom knowing the Reeses, and my Grandpa’s community, and the bubble, and the way I can move. I feel like I’m flailing in the deep end of a pool. “When everything falls into the right combination, it feels like you blow open, doesn’t it? Like you come out of yourself. You’re protected, and your body can do things that shouldn’t be possible. Like running at an insane speed. Like being able to sidestep the girls in the bathroom. Like being able to dodge me.”
“What is this? What’s happening to me?” I put my head in my hands, trying to slow my thoughts. Maybe I’m an alien, or a superhero, or a monster. Maybe I’m having strokes or heart attacks. Every horror movie I’ve ever seen replays in a montage, one terrifying scene stacked on another, like dominoes dropping in my head. My mind skitters in a dozen directions and I feel sick. My breathing goes erratic, and suddenly, Garrett pushes me down on the ground. I sit with my head between my knees.
“Breathe.” His voice is calm behind the curtain of my hair. I try to do as he says, even though my heart is hammering the breath out of me faster than I can pull it in. I squeeze my eyes shut and then Garrett’s voice is the only thing my senses allow.
“It’s all right,” he says. “Just breathe. That’s right. Just listen to me and breathe.”
I hear the French doors squeak open, and Garrett calls out, “She’s okay.”
“What happened?” Sean’s voice comes closer from across the lawn, accompanied by the voices of the two other Reese boys, who are echoing Sean’s question. I groan inwardly. My head is still between my knees. Today’s been a series of puking panic attacks and I just want my life to smooth out and go back to normal.
“Did you look at the mugs?” Garrett asks.
“No.” Sean’s footsteps stop short of us. Garrett stays squatted down beside me.
“What’s going on?” Brandon asks.
“Did you knock her out?” Mark sounds a little too excited at the prospect. Garrett ignores the younger boys, aiming his discussion solely at Sean.
“You’ve got to check out the mugs.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Sean says. “I know, I know. Read the tea. But obviously you two have figured out something on your own.”
“Yeah,” Garrett says. “I was right.”
Their conversation is so calm that I relax. My breathing goes back to normal. I have no idea what kind of look is being exchanged over my head, but I can only guess that they are rolling their eyes, since obviously, I’m not a girl who can handle whatever is being dished out. But instead of the pity or disgust I expect, I get a hard thunk on the back as Mark booms, “Congratulations, Nalena!”
“Easy!” Garrett growls at his brother as I raise my head. I feel such a shade of pale that I probably look as lively as a wax statue, but thankfully, Garrett is too busy glaring at Mark to notice.
“Does that mean what I think it does?” Brandon’s voice dulls with every word. “Doesn’t it only happen when...”
“Maybe her dad was Contego.” Mark is cheerful and upbeat.
Sean’s frown doesn’t budge. He shakes his head.
“No. You know that doesn’t happen. The blood lines don’t mix,” he says. “If she really is Contego, it can only mean a Cusp.”
“She is,” Garrett insists.
“We’ll see,” Sean says with a shrug.
“What’s a Contego?” I ask, but my voice is limp. No one seems to hear.
“Do you think we’re the first ones to know?” Brandon asks.
The four Reese brothers collectively think it over while I wait for someone to explain it. I hear the bubble of the koi pond and a breeze wafts through the surrounding trees. The silence becomes so heavy, it feels unbreakable. I run my hand through my hair, aggravated instead of respectful.
“What’s a Cusp?” I ask.
“Nothing big.” Sean shrugs, but Mark clucks his tongue.
“Only the change of everything,” he says.
There is a wiggle in the high bushes at the lot line nearest the house. Mark, Brandon, and Garrett automatically drop into a defensive stance. Feeling a tension in my legs, I glance down and see that I am no longer sitting, but crouched in a stance that mirrors Garrett’s. The combination inside of me is whirring.
The branches beside the patio jostle again and burst apart. Iris comes blasting through, trying to control the hot pink bike that wobbles beneath her.
“Get outta the way!” she screams. The bike flounders, but Iris still manages to grab hold of her pink bubble horn. The thing squeaks Pickles! Pickles! Pickles! as she shakes over the lawn, going straight for Garrett.
“Get outta the way!” she howls again, but instead of jumping back to avoid her, Garrett slides an inch to the side and grabs the bicycle frame. The bike jerks to a halt and Iris lets out a grunt. She looks up from beneath her baby-fine bangs and smiles at Garrett, all teeth.
“Whew...that was close!” she squeals.
“You can say that again,” Garrett tells her. “Where’s your helmet, Trouble?”
“It fell off when I went through the sprinkler,” she grumbles, climbing off her bike. She dislodges one of the two soggy stuffed animals from her basket, brightening as she adds, “But I didn’t ride over the McCarthy’s garden today!”
“It’s about time,” Brandon grumbles. “I’m sick of fixing their fence.”
“Good work, Shorty,” Sean congratulates her. She beams.
“I brought bears to play tea party with the fishes. Who wants to have Mr. Boodles?” Iris asks. She is only looking at me.
“Please don’t make me have a tea party with the fish,” I mumble to Garrett. He laughs.
“Mark and Brandon want to play,” Garrett tells her and she drops the lump of a stuffed animal against her chest with a frown. “Nalena’s helping Sean and I make dinner tonight. Unless Mark and Brandon want to cook instead.”
“No way,” Mark says gloomily. “I’ll play tea house.”
“Tea party,” Iris corrects him. Mark’s shoulders droop.
“Fine,” he says. “Just gimme Mr. Boodles.”
“I get Boodles,” Brandon says and when Mark springs for the soggy bear, Brandon pulls him into a headlock. Sean sighs and turns toward the house. Garrett and I follow him.
“Am I some evil omen?” I ask Garrett. Sean pinches the inside of his cheek with his molars.
“No.” Garrett’s laugh is light, but Mark, still stuck in Brandon’s headlock, hollers, “Yes you are!”
“You’re not an evil omen,” Sean says. “The world is always changing. All a Cusp means is that there is a bigger shift than usual coming. Changes can spark…altercations. That’s all.”
“What kind of shift? Like California’s finally going to fall into the ocean—that kind of shift? Or do you means something like a meteor or a nuclear bomb? What kind of altercation are you talking about? And what’s a Contego?” My throat goes dry and my voice is squeezed in it. My brain tumbles Alo, dead people’s memories, Contego, and Cusp all together. Garrett takes my hand.
“Contego are warriors,” he says. He makes it sound like a sun sign. Virgo, Taurus, Leo, Contego.
“Actually, they’re protectors,” Sean corrects with a punch to Garrett’s shoulder. “And as far as Cusps go, no one knows what changes are coming. Historically, Cusps have sometimes brought war, economic depression, riots, crime. But a Cusp could also bring strongly positive changes like huge advances in technology, the cure for an epidemic, or the end of segregation. It’s not always the worst case scenario, but the Cusps do signal some sort of powerful change, even if we can’t tell whether they will be positive or negative. Hey, if we knew, it wouldn’t be any fun, right?”
He swings open one of the French doors and Garrett holds it for me.
“So, I’m the sign of a change that’s coming? Great,” I say, but the two of them just laugh. It makes me feel a little hollow, as if I’m on the outside of the joke.
Sean beelines to my and Garrett’s mugs, left on the counter. He picks them up, like binoculars, and peers into them. He says, huh, three or four times, before setting them back where they were, by the cookie jar. I wonder how long they’ll sit there before someone decides to wash them out.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Garrett says, but Sean just shrugs and hums, mmm hmm, like it’s nothing.
“Tell you what?” I ask, looking from one brother to the other. “What does it tell you?”
“What I said before,” Garrett says with a grin. “That you’re Contego.”
I go silent. It has to be a joke and I’m not going to keep biting. Garrett must’ve just had a lucky guess about the whirring. Engine gears are different, actually—more grinding than whirring. Kind of. I think of how short of a time I have known Garrett and how incredible it is that he just happened to find me in the library, as if he was tracking me down, rather than stumbling on me. He’s worked so hard to make me trust him. Maybe he and Jen are actually in this together, some elaborate prank to make me say I’m some crazy warrior. I bet it would be an awesome Senior prank to prove that The Waste is completely insane.
Garrett pats the top of a stool, under the counter. There is nothing in his eyes that says this is a joke.
“Have a seat right here,” he says. “You can entertain us while we work.”
Whether it is a joke or not, I want my reflection to stay in his eyes. A joke might be worth that.
“It’s not like I know magic or anything,” I say as I slide onto the barstool. Garrett drags out a chopping block and lays it on the counter between us.
“You can just sit there.” The shine in Garrett’s eyes sparkles in my head and makes me dizzy. “That’s entertaining enough.”
“I guess I’ll do the green beans,” Sean groans. I can’t tell if he’s groaning because of what Garrett said or because of the beans, but then he makes a face behind Garrett’s back and says, “I know how everybody hates doing beans.”
“Everybody does,” Garrett agrees with a sarcastic laugh. I lean my elbows on the counter.
“Is there something I can do?”
“How about potatoes?” Sean pipes up. “You want to peel them?”
When I hesitate two seconds too long, Garrett assures me, “You don’t have to. I don’t think you can do it with that cast on anyway.” His tone is so apologetic, I’m embarrassed. He takes an enormous bag of potatoes from beneath the sink and dumps them on the counter. “Peeling’s a pain, but Sean and I are used to it. My parents are whole food nuts and with the size of our family, meals are like prepping for an army.”
“It’s true,” Sean adds. “The pizza last night was kind of a fluke. Happens every once in a while, but usually all you can get around here is health food. It’s pretty boring.”
“And I’d rather you sit where I can see you anyway,” Garrett murmurs to me. I smile at him as he unloads four whole chickens from the fridge, laying them on the wood chopping block. “Talk to me, while I hack up birds.”
“No, I want to help,” I tell him, sliding off the stool. “Peeling’s fine with me.”
Except that it’s absolutely not fine.
I’ve never peeled a potato before in my life. Not in our house, where the stove is piled high with boxes of paper and the counters overflow with it too. I can work a can opener, bread tabs, and microwaves. Beyond that, I’ve never had to cope much. Garrett hands me a small, sharp knife and puts a huge, silver pot next to the potato bag.
“Tonight’s mashed.” He winks. My pulse winks too. I tell myself that potatoes are not brain surgery, they’re potatoes. I just have to get the peel off. I’m sure there is a fancy trick to it, but since I don’t know it, I just do what makes sense. Garrett is right—it is awkward with the cast. I end up cutting the potatoes in wedges, and then sawing off the skins, the same way I’d cut the rind off a watermelon.
I’m on the eighth one when Garrett glances over my shoulder and says, “Ahh. So you’re a health nut too, huh? Don’t want to lose all the vitamins in the peel? My parents would be proud.”
He’s teasing, but it is obvious that I’m doing it all wrong. I don’t know how to peel a stupid potato. Suddenly, I can’t force a smile onto my lips. I’m tired of being the person who knows nothing. But Garrett, hardly missing a beat, slips the knife out of my hand and murmurs to me, “Here ya go, Old School, step aside and let me show you how the pros do it.”
He elbows me where it tickles, pushing me away from the sink as I laugh. He picks up a spud and tosses it from hand to hand, as if it’s either a weapon or a magic trick, I can’t figure out which. Then he stands in front of the sink, his hands outstretched, and he shakes his hair away from his face dramatically. It’s pointless, since the strands fall right back to where they were, curling into his cheekbones, as he tips his head over the potato.
“Watch and learn,” he says. He works the knife masterfully, moving the vegetable in his palm. His shirt sleeves are pushed up to his elbows and I can visually trace two veins in his forearms, all the way to his wrists. I want to run my fingers over his arm and feel the ridges. I have to concentrate on keeping my hands at my sides and it doesn’t help when Garrett glances at me sideways, like he knows what I’m thinking. He lifts a perfect curl of skin off the white oval and dangles the spiral over my head like mistletoe.
“Ta da,” he says, glancing at my lips. I want him to kiss me.
“Steak fries are sounding really good.” Sean coughs.
Garrett smiles, dropping his eyes to the countertop. He flips the flawless potato curl into the sink.
“I agree. Carry on, Nalena. You just saved us from a typical and boring dinner. You’re brilliant.”
I go back to hacking up the potatoes the way I was and my mind slowly trails away from the thrill of watching Garrett’s hands. I rewind everything that happened this afternoon. Jen and Regina, Garrett’s attack, Contego, Cusp.
The weirdness of it all makes me want my mom. To lean against her, and spill out everything that has happened today. I know that everything will be okay, if I can just hear my mom say that it will.
When the phone rings, I stop cutting to watch Sean pick up the phone. I wait for him to glance at me, to say something familiar that would mean it is my mom on the other end. Instead, there is a long pause after he says hello and then he grimaces.
“For Mark, press one,” he says, and then, he pauses. “For Brandon, press two.” Another pause. Then he makes his voice as thick and silly as a talk show host. “For Sean, press three.” He does an extra long pause and then frowns. “For all other calls, hang up, because Garrett’s taken.” Pause. “Hello? Anyone? C’mon, Heavy Breather, if you’re going to call, you at least have to press a number if you’re not going to talk.”
Garrett laughs as Sean shrugs and replaces the receiver on the wall cradle. Sean smirks when he catches me watching him.
“It’s how we have to answer the phone around here,” he explains. “Why don’t you girls ever want to say your name when you call?”
The front door opens five minutes later, but it feels like a week has passed. Mr. and Mrs. Reese come in with my mom sandwiched between them, as if they’re on a chain gang. My mom looks antsy. She twists out of her coat, her lips speeding silently through lists of names. Wherever she and the Reeses were today, it took too long.
“We ran into traffic,” Mrs. Reese explains to no one in particular. She comes into the kitchen and takes one of the packages of paper off the counter that Garrett and I had brought home. She hands it to my mom like it is aspirin for a headache.
“Here, Evangeline. It looks like we’ve still got some time before dinner. You go ahead and get some of your writing done. I’m so sorry it took us so long getting home.”
In front of everyone, my mom tears into the paper like she’s a starving woman ripping into a candy bar. I want to hide under the sink. Her lips are moving, and then I can hear her mumbling all the names and plots, in total loony mode. My mom sits down at the table and hunches over her paper, scribbling line after line as my heart sinks. Whatever I need—whether it is for her to look sane in front of Garrett and his family, or whether I need to tell her that I might be the reason the world is going to end at any minute—all of it has to wait now.
“Where were you?” I ask. Mrs. Reese answers, instead of my mom.
“Oh, no place special,” she says. “Just the bank, some errands…you know, boring stuff. How about you guys? Anything new here?”
“New is an understatement,” Sean says. “Look at the mugs by the cookie jar.”
Mrs. Reese leans over the counter and picks up the two mugs, her eyes finding the tea blobs in the bottoms. I’m waiting for her face to register some type of horror, but her expression remains bland as she says. “Whose are these?”
“Garrett and Nalena’s,” Sean says. “From this morning.”
“Nalena’s?” Her face is surprised, not horrified, but the shock in her tone gets Mr. Reese on his feet and standing beside her. She tips the mugs so he can see into the mouths of them too.
“Can you believe it?” Garrett says, as he dumps a wing on the pile of separated chicken pieces in front of him.
“Evangeline…” The sound in Mr. Reese’s voice does something my own voice has never been able to do. It stops my mother’s pen and raises her head. “You need to look at this. Nalena’s tea is formed in the sign of the Contego.”
There it is, out there, just like that. No fanfare, no easing into it. My mom’s face goes blank, as if her expression just slid off her chin. I have the urge to shout, It’s just tea! It’s no big deal! at all the somber faces in the room. My mom puts down her pen and stands on shaky legs. Whatever this is, it is a bad enough joke to scare her.
“That can’t be,” she says.
Mrs. Reese hands my mother both mugs across the table. My mom looks into one and then the other, again and again, her face draining to a sickly shade of pale that feels contagious. The motion in the air evaporates, all of us suspended in our small pockets of space around the kitchen, as my mom continues her inspection of the mugs.
“This has to be a joke,” she says weakly.
“It’s not, Alo Evangeline,” Garrett says. “I swear it. I poured out Nalena’s tea myself.”
“You poured it? Then your touch must’ve affected it.” My mom’s tone is an odd mix of accusation and vulnerability. Garrett doesn’t waver, but his own voice softens.
“No, ma’am,” he says. “Nalena has received the sign of the Contego. I’ve seen proof of it twice today.”
“Impossible,” my mom whispers. She puts down the cups and grips the edge of the table. My stomach churns. All the comfort I felt from my mother’s presence is sucked from the room and the air that is left feels raw on my skin.
“What proof?” Mrs. Reese asks.
“Nalena was attacked in the bathroom at school today,” Garrett says. “A friend caught the whole incident on a cell phone. After playing back the video, I didn’t have any doubt of what she was. So, when we got home this afternoon, I tested the theory to be sure.”
“Tested how?” Mr. Reese asks narrowly.
“He attacked her,” Sean deadpans, making it sound like there were easier ways to prove it, but that maybe Garrett cut right to the chase. My mom’s mouth seals shut in a tight, straight line and her eyes cast down on the tabletop. I see her swallow. Her words come slow and deliberate.
“And what happened?”
“She was able to avoid me,” Garrett says, leaning both hands on the counter. “Until she was frightened, of course. She dropped out at the mention of fear, so I knew she hadn’t been trained.”
“Of course not,” my mother barely whispers. “She is a daughter of Alo. There was no reason for me to expect an alternate sign.”
She pinches the paling skin between her eyes. Whatever has happened to me, whatever I am or am becoming, it must be terrible. Her hand shakes over her face. Who I am has somehow become devastating to her. Tears flood my own vision, distorting her entirely.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I say.
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Nalena,” she hiccups beneath her hand. “I just…don’t…want you...tangled up in this. And now…you’ll have to choose…”
Her words evaporate into sobs and Mr. Reese goes to my mother, putting an arm around her. My mom turns to him, hiding her face in both hands against his chest. Her back bucks with grief.
I feel a rootless shame. The floor begins to spin, and then the whole kitchen is spinning, with everyone swirling around with it. Everyone but me. All eyes are on my mom. I am the only one left standing still. Mrs. Reese crosses the dining room to rub my mom’s back as she collapses into sobs in Mr. Reese’s arms. This is a thousand times worse than I expected. I must be a monster. I grasp the counter as it spins by me. I should’ve never been born. The room twirls until it is just a strobe of nauseating colors. I didn’t choose any of this, but I am ensnared at its center. I’m going to be sick.
It is hard to describe how he cuts through the blur.
He is only a shape—an unmistakable outline against the color—walking easily into the swirling twister that envelops me. He reaches out and the color that glows all around him explodes toward me in a white hot heat. The swirl melts back from him and his warmth spreads out to encase me as his touch comes nearer. The moment we make contact, the colors implode in a pop and I am back, standing in Garrett’s kitchen, his hand clasping mine.
“You okay?” he whispers in my ear. I can still feel the heat surging from his hand. It pumps through my body like medicine.
“I’m fine,” I say. He smiles like he knows that he is a power outlet. His palm pulses against my skin, as his energy blooms into my veins and rejuvenates me. The dizziness subsides, but he keeps hold of my hand, as if he plans to stay until I move away. I look into the open sky of his eyes and what I see there hits me with a jolt. It is no longer my mom who can bring me my deepest comfort. It is Garrett.
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Dinner is a funeral. Although my mom settles down, she asks Mr. and Mrs. Reese to wait until after we eat to discuss ‘this whole thing’. Which is me. Me, bringing down the world in flames. It makes it a little impossible to eat. I just push my food around and wait for everyone else to finish.
Garrett sits on one side of me, eating slowly, his leg close enough to mine that wiry sparks of heat trap in the space between us. On the other side, my mom is a stone, not eating what’s in front of her either.
The only one that seems completely unaffected by any of this is Iris. She slurps her milk and tells jokes that don’t make sense, swallowing only if the food gets in the way of her talking. With every punch line, she laughs until her face turns magenta and it’s hard to tell if she’s wildly amused or choking. It must be pretty normal because the Reeses don’t seem bothered by it. In fact, they ignore her, even as she twists her head from side to side, looking for an admiring audience. The ponytail plume on her head dances with her gerbil-ish attention span.
“E-vanch-line,” she calls over the table to my mom. “What’d the chicken say to the potatoes?”
My mom, with puffy eyes, tries to smile. “I don’t know. What did it say, honey?”
“It says eat the greens beans!” Iris squeals and she stuffs her mouth full of beans, laughing. My mom pushes out a flat laugh, and her weak smile fall into her lap. When Iris calls my mom’s name again, Mrs. Reese taps her daughter’s hand.
“Enough jokes, Iris,” she says. “Finish your dinner.”
The rest of the meal is quiet. When the Reeses are finished, the four boys get to their feet and clear away their dishes.
“You didn’t eat nothing,” Iris says to my mother, as Iris slides off her chair.
“You didn’t eat anything,” Mr. Reese corrects her. Iris shrugs and leaves. My mother’s plate is untouched, but Garrett carries it away without another word. My mom starts mumbling beside me.
“Bart Cubulick, 93, thought of his mother everyday; Phi Tan, 86, fished for his family without complaint; Shelly Lennon, 12...”
I listen to my mother’s feverish simmer of useless names and stories and every word she speaks becomes a pair of sharp, fierce teeth, gnawing at my stomach. She hasn’t explained anything to me. All she’s done is cry on Mr. Reese’s shoulder as if I am her personal tragedy.
Feeling so cut off from her is like swimming in the pit of a well. I’m struggling to figure out what is going on and she isn’t even trying to help keep my head above water. When our house was on the verge of being condemned due to the amount of paper, she’d just said a change of view would be nice. When we ran out of money and had to go on welfare, she said we might as well get a little back from all the taxes we’d paid in. I’ve always relied on her telling me things are going to be fine, whether or not I believed her.
I realize that it’s always been me and her, except that while I’m stuck here sinking on my own, it suddenly seems like a lot more of me making things work and dealing with it all, than her. And, with her not saying a word to me now, the little jaws snap at my gut as she mutters. She’s setting up her usual escape, into her writing, so she won’t have to talk. I decide to head her off before that happens.
“I guess I just go this one alone,” I grumble. The bitterness in my voice finds its target and she turns her head, the fog of names lifting as she blinks at me.
“Go what alone?” she asks. From the corner of my eye, Garrett pauses from clearing the bottles of salad dressing off the table. The other Reeses go quiet, but continue cleaning up.
“Me!” I snap at her. “Remember how you were crying before dinner? I’m doomed...remember? That. That’s what I’m going alone.”
My mom blinks again and her expression clears and then crumples, as if she’s slapped me in a nightmare and just woken up. She gets to her feet, pulling my hand along with her.
“We need to talk,” she says.
I jerk my hand away from her, but Garrett murmurs, “Go Nalena. Go talk with her.”
I feel younger than Iris as I follow my mother into the living room. My mom pushes my pillow aside on the couch and sits, patting the cushion next to her. I fall down beside her, pulling my comforter around me.
“Bet you’re confused,” my mom says. “I just want you to listen to me and I’m going to tell you what’s going on.”
“Yes, everything,” she says. The thread of a shiver slips down my spine, but I remain quiet and still.
Her brow puckers in the center. “You’ve been given a different ancestral sign than the one I was expecting. I’d been watching all along for the sign of the Alo, and I was hoping we’d reach your 18th birthday without one. It would mean that you wouldn’t be involved in all of this. But I never thought to look for a different sign. I assumed that some of your preferences, like your love for running, was attributed to your Alo heritage. We’re phenomenal runners. But it’s also a sign of the Contego, and I’m sorry I didn’t think to look for that.
“I should’ve known better, when you first came home from school and told me you didn’t feel right. The sign of Contego can first show itself when you feel threatened or in danger. You weren’t sick. Your column of chakras, the energy points inside you, had aligned when the girl at school threatened you. It was perfectly normal.
“You see, our community has four blood lines. The Veritas are those who manage the exchanges of energy in the world and keep things balanced, the Addos are those chosen to lead the individual Ianua communities…we call them Curas…” She pauses a moment to lick her lips as if she knows I’m on the verge of screaming. “And the Alo, like me, are the ones who record the memories of the deceased to retain their knowledge for use to us on Earth. The last line belongs to the Contego, like the Reeses, who protect us all.”
“Stop doing this,” I tell her, but she shakes her head.
“Listen to me. This was my mistake. I didn’t expect you to receive any other sign than Alo. This kind of thing only happens when there is a Cusp. I guess it is the universe’s way of making sure the Alo are protected and the Ianua is preserved during times of trouble.”
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” I jump to my feet, shouting at her. My nerves feel electrocuted. The Reeses go quiet in the other room and I grasp my own forearms, biting my lip. “Whatever game you’re all playing, you got me!”
“Nalena...what I do,” my mom starts again. Her eyes are glossy, desperate.
“I don’t care what you do!”
The phone rings. We both go silent as I hear Sean say hello and then there is a long pause, like before.
“For Sean, press one...” He sighs and goes through the list of Reese boys like he did earlier, reminding whoever is on the other end that Garrett is taken. It should make me happy, but instead, I am sitting here with my cast crossed over my chest, feeling like everyone is in on this joke, but me. Sean hangs up and Mrs. Reese asks him what’s new in his philosophy class. Sean sputters a hollow answer and Mr. Reese fills the void, asking Garrett about finals. Their conversation starts up again, giving us our privacy. My mom rubs her brow, pulling at the skin with her fingertips.
“Garrett’s taken?” she asks. “With you?”
Thankfully, her voice is low enough that it hardly makes it to me. Garrett won’t be able to hear her in the kitchen.
“Maybe,” I say. “Maybe’s he’s not so out of my league after all.”
My mom’s face tightens.
“Nalena, he was never out of your league. But he is Contego.” Her brow ripples with worry as she drops her voice even lower. “How taken is he with you? What has he told you about being Contego?”
“Can we just drop all this?”
“Listen to me,” she says. “I just want to be sure that you don’t make any decisions based on a high school crush. You have a chance to choose differently and I want you to have a normal life. Something away from all this. Please, Nalena.”
“Please what?” My whisper sizzles, trying to get my mom to keep her voice down too. “Are you trying to tell me who I can like?”
“I don’t want him to influence you!” She explodes in tears as she jumps off the couch. “I’m going to be sick!” she howls, and she runs out of the living room, scuttling up the stairs and slamming the bathroom door behind her.
I sit outside the bathroom door with Iris and Mrs. Reese, listening to my mother’s echoing retching.
“She’s frowing up?” Iris whispers as my mom starts up again.
Mrs. Reese nods to her daughter and taps on the door, “Can I help, Evangeline?”
“I’m okay,” my mom coughs. Iris looks between her mother and I, shaking her head.
“Frowing up’s not okay,” she says.
“Let’s give her some space. She’ll be fine.” Mrs. Reese stands and puts her hand on my shoulder, rubbing gently, just like my mom would. I can’t even look at her.
“Hang in there,” she says as she pulls her hand away. She looks down at her daughter. “And you need a bath before bed, Iris. Let’s get you into the tub downstairs.”
“The boy’s bathroom?” Iris scrunches up her nose. “Not the boy’s bathroom, Mama! There’s no toys in there!”
“We’ll find something,” Mrs. Reese promises. She guides Iris downstairs by pushing her daughter along, a hand on her back. I am left sitting in the upstairs hallway, unable to even speak a word of comfort through the door. I listen to my mom throwing up again.
“Hey.” Garrett’s voice is behind me. I turn and look down the short staircase. He’s standing on the main floor, leaning on the railing. “Wanna get out of here?”
“No.” I am miserable. “My mom’s sick.”
“We can stick around here if you want,” he says, “but it’s not going to do you any good to stand there listening.”
I’m sure he’s right, but as I get up and walk away from the bathroom door, guilt and relief tumble inside me like dirty socks. We go down to the family room and sit beside one another on the couch.
“Feel like a movie?” he asks.
“You a gamer? We have a few video games.”
I shake my head, offering a weak smile of apology.
“All right. Then let’s do something else,” he says, standing up. He puts out his hand to me. I take it without asking what we are going to do. I don’t know if I even care. His hand is dry and smooth and I can feel his pulse in the center of my palm. Or maybe it is mine. Whatever it is, it doesn’t feel like a joke. Or just a crush.
We walk down the hall that stems away from the family room. On the left, the bathroom door is open and Iris is belting out a tuneless song beneath the rinse that Mrs. Reese pours over her daughter’s head.
“Keep your mouth closed,” Mrs. Reese tells her, but I doubt Iris hears a word, since she never stops singing. She just sputters under the waterfall.
Garrett points to a door on the right.
“The basement,” he says. “Also, Sean’s room, the laundry room, and our gym equipment.”
We pass the basement door and Garrett draws my hand closer to his chest. My shoulder almost rubs his back as we walk. We head toward the dark oak door at the end of the hall.
“My room,” he says, twisting the knob. He drops my hand and goes in, leaving me at the threshold. The dark, handsome smell of him is here too, like a twin. I inhale him as casually as I can, in long greedy breaths.
He crosses the room and pulls back the deep chocolate-colored curtains from a long, rectangular window. Althought the glass panes are at eye level inside, they are just above ground level outside. The moonlight still finds its way in.
My feet sink into the soft carpet. Dark wood closet doors line the wall in front of me, a desk is on my left with a reclining office chair tucked beneath.
There is a black-framed collage of textured art above his bed. A silver branch, an ocean wrinkle, one speckled pearl, a corner of the moon. I spend a long time looking at the collage, because it seems wrong to look at his bed. I avoid the bed entirely, even though it takes up most of the room.
Garrett walks over to the desk and turns on a lamp. He flips switches on an ancient boom box. Since he seems absorbed, I finally steal a look at his bed.
The bed is a mattress, sitting on an oversized wood platform. The headboard is a polished rectangle of wood. The comforter is black with a beige stripe and there is a long white tube pillow against the headboard with two pillows resting on top, which are the exact color of Garrett’s eyes. I think of Garrett sleeping there, waking there, and lying with me there.
He pulls his chair out from beneath the desk and my eyes move from his bed and crash right into his gaze. I blush.
“Have a seat.” He grins and looks back at the music box. I do what he wants, making it to the chair on numb legs. He turns on the music and drops onto the edge of his comforter, leaning back on his palms.
“Just listen,” he says, as if I can concentrate in his bedroom.
The music begins with muted chords of a guitar; the beat as deep and dark as shadows. It is haunting and beautiful and it pulls me in. I could sleep here, tipped back in his pillowy leather chair.
Garrett startles me when he leans off the bed. He pushes his hair behind his ear and switches off the lamp. His profile floats in my head a second after it actually disappears into the dark.
He is erased to nothing but a silhouette in the moonlight. I trace his darkness, the smooth muscles of his arms and the narrow taper of his waist. A burst of anxiety darts through me at the thought of Mrs. Reese finding us and chasing me shamefully out of this cocoon, or his brothers, disturbing this warm space with their thunderous laughter, or of my mother, healed and calling for me. I want this second of my life, filled with the muted chords and the silver twilight, to go on forever. I want his shadow to come closer, to lean in so I feel the heat of his body like a blanket on my skin. I want him to kiss me.
Instead, he settles on his bed, leaning back on his hands, the same way he was before. I feel him watching me through the darkness.
“Can I ask you something?”
“It’s important,” I say. “I need you to tell me the truth.”
“Do you think my mom needs help?”
His voice is an anchor. “No.”
“Then, is this...is it all a joke?”
“No, it’s not,” he says. “What your mom’s telling you is real. It’s all the truth.”
“So what’s the big deal then?”
“I know this is a lot to get all at once, but you’ve been given a sign. What your mom does is vital to all of us.”
“This is insane.”
“It scares you,” he rephrases. Maybe with the lights on, it would scare me less, but I doubt it. Still, I’m not going to sound like a coward if this actually becomes a story passed around in school.
“No it doesn’t,” I lie.
“You know, you don’t have to choose this if you don’t want it,” he says. I don’t answer. I’ll have to leave out the part about how she warned me about making a decision based on the feelings I have for him. “The Ianua are born with two destinies instead of just one. We have a clearer choice in which path we take.”
“Everyone gets to make choices about where their life goes.”
“Not like we do,” he says. “We have a very conscious choice. You can have a Simple Life, apart from all of this, or you can choose to throw yourself right in the middle of it and train to protect others.”
“And you picked jumping in.”
“So, you’re an adrenaline junkie.”
His laugh is held behind closed lips.
“No. If you think of it that way, I’m actually a peace junkie. Being one of the Contego means I’m choosing a more focused destiny, to train and commit to protecting the Ianua, but it doesn’t guarantee I’ll come to harm from it. I could wind up being a 90-year-old Contego that never gets the chance to protect anything more important than a bell-ringer’s bucket at Christmas. Who knows? There are no guarantees.”
“Then why did you pick it?”
“I might be able to help, and that seems like the right thing to do,” he says. “It seems like a life worth living.”
I lean back in his chair, the tips of my toes touching the floor as I rock myself back and forth. We let the music waltz in our silence.
“So how does it happen?” I ask. “Did you have to sign a form or something? Take classes?”
“No.” He chuckles again. “The first step is to be counseled by the Addo. Some people know right off which destiny they want. I did. When I went for counseling, the Addo seemed to know too. We never talked about alternatives.”
His shrug is loose and relaxed. “Everything’s normal. It took Mark a week to decide. Brandon held off for a year. Some people take longer. You get all the time you need. But if you decide to become Contego, the Addo will Impression you to make it final.”
“I’ll show you,” he says. He leans toward me off the bed, the shadow of his left arm reaching for me. “Give me your hand.”
A shiver pushes through me as I hold myself out to him. He touches me, and the icy quiver in my stomach melts with his warmth. His fingertips slide the length of my hand to the wrist, and then pull back until his palm is over my first two fingers.
“Do you feel that?” he asks.
I touch my fingertips to his skin and feel something I don’t expect. His palm is not smooth. The skin is ridged. I feel with my two fingers, and then turn his hand over in both of mine and touch with my thumbs. There is a shape on his palm, something pressed right into the skin that seems as though it should be familiar to me, but I can’t make it out. I brush my fingertips over the shape, again and again, growing more frustrated with each touch. With his palm still in my hands, he finally leans over and flicks on the lamp with his opposite hand.
My eyes burn with the sudden light, but I blink hard, forcing them to adjust. I blink again, staring into his palm. It looks as though there is nothing there. I rub my thumb over it and then, only because I know where it is, the shape comes into sharp focus. And it is more than familiar. It’s the same design that was in the bottom of my tea cup this morning.
“How did you get this?” I ask.
“The Addo burned it into my hand.”
There are a million questions that come to mind, but of course, the only one that surfaces is the dumbest one. “Did it hurt?”
“Yes,” he says. I fall silent as I trace the mark again with both my fingers and my sight, to be sure this isn’t either a daydream or a nightmare. Then I drop his hand and he sits back on the bed, watching me closely.
“Did you have to do that?”
“Only when I chose to be Contego,” he says. I glance at his hand again, palm down, hiding the nearly invisible mark.
“What does it do?”
“It’s not magic. It’s ID. The average person would think nothing of this,” He raises his left hand and puts his fingers to his temple as if he is going to push back his hair. He pauses. The mark on his palm is angled toward me and even clearer than when I was holding it inches from my face, although it would still be undetectable if I wasn’t looking for it. He drops his hand. “That’s how we show one another who we are.”
I flash back to the night I sat in his car, crying against his window, with my broken arm in my lap. I remember him greeting my mother. I remember him rubbing his head like that. I thought he was freaked out at the sight of our overflowing apartment. I think of my mother and how she knew the way to the Reeses’ house and how she stood on their front porch, rubbing her forehead too. My mother, who has touched me all my life, has these same ridges hiding in her palm. I am ashamed that I never noticed.
“How long have you known what I am? Who my mom is?” I ask.
“I had no idea that you could be Contego until I saw Cora’s video. Before that,” he pauses, as if he’s choosing his words carefully, and my mind is too exhausted to push him to speak any faster. I’m having a hard time keeping up as it is. “I knew who your mom was. And what she was. She’s always known we were here, if she needed us.”
It makes me feel like a freak, which I should be used to, but I’m not. Not coming from his mouth. I think of the last four months at Simon Valley, not fitting in, being ridiculed and friendless and all I want to ask is why he never stepped in and helped me.
Instead, I ask, “Why now?” and Garrett’s face fills with concern as if he just read my mind.
“Nalena, your mom separated herself from the Ianua a long time ago. I knew who you were, but I wasn’t allowed to have contact with you. It was her choice.”
“What do you mean her choice? What choice?”
“The Contego protect the Alo and the work they do,” he says. “But it’s not forced on anyone.”
“Protection from what? Who does she need protecting from?”
“Protection means a lot of different things,” Garrett says. His hand drifts over the comforter. “You wouldn’t have to be on welfare. Financial support is usually a necessity for the Alo, since they spend so much time writing.”
My cheeks are shredded with heat. It’s bad enough that he knows. I think of the bridge card and every piece of worn clothing in my second-hand wardrobe. I feel the same mixture of humiliation as when I received my Ipod from a local charity at Christmas. All of our money has gone to pay for the taxes on a bulging house where stacks of memories have evicted us, and for storage sheds, stuffed with reams of people, piled in waterproof Rubbermaids.
I know I should have a better sense of humanity, or at the very least, some kind of virtuous understanding for how my mom sacrificed my needs for the greater good, but I don’t. And with Garrett sitting here, telling me that none of it was even necessary anyway, the anger floods me like a dark sewer.
“Do you know why my mom chose to leave the community?” I ask. Garrett’s brows crest with a worry or a secret, so I say, “I know my grandpa was murdered, but I don’t know why my mom wouldn’t stay where it was safe.”
“I have no idea,” Garrett says, but his eyes fall away from mine and I know that he is not telling me the truth. He gets up off the bed and changes the song.
“If you weren’t supposed to have any contact with me,” I repeat his words. “Then why did you come to the library?”
I hold my breath for the answer.
Say you couldn’t stand not knowing me anymore.
Say you felt something powerful.
Say it was me.
I watch his eyes cloud over and the climate in them cools.
“The Addo asked us to keep a close eye. Even if your mom wasn’t associating with us, we’re still responsible for protecting the Alo. Since you weren’t Alo, that we knew of at least, my family thought I could keep tabs on you. Since you were not in the realm of our responsibilities, we wouldn’t really be crossing the line with your mom’s intentions to stay separated...”
The floor falls out, the Earth is hollow.
Or maybe that is my soul, my body.
This beautiful boy didn’t want me to begin with. In fact, this was never about me at all. He’s been doing the world a favor, spying on my mom through me.
“It was a good plan,” I say with a cough. I jump up and the chair bucks, kicking the back of my legs. I grip the desk so I don’t fall over. At least the tremble running through me doesn’t seem to show.
“Hold on, Nalena...” Garrett says, but I’m already at the door, escaping his room and his spying, and the smell of his intoxicating cologne.
“I have to check on my mom,” I say. I am even more ashamed that I’m finally thinking of her now.
My mom is sipping water at the table when I come upstairs. Mr. and Mrs. Reese and Sean are all sitting with her, leaning in, forming a supportive circle around her. The minute I walk in, everyone scuttles to straight backs, except my mom. She gets to her feet.
“Nali, I want to say I’m sorry for how I reacted,” my mom says.
“Me too,” I mumble. “Are you okay now?”
It’s hard to say what I really want to, with all the Reeses watching. Garrett comes up the stairs, into the dining room, which makes saying anything else nearly impossible.
“I’m fine,” my mom says. I give her an it’s-all-good nod, before evaporating into the darkness of the living room, but my mom follows. She drops onto the couch beside me, just like we were before.
“I’m sorry I got so upset,” she says.
“I don’t even get what you’re upset about.” I want this to be over with so badly, I’m almost itching. I want to bury my face under my blankets, go to sleep, and forget everything. School, Ianua, the Contego, the Alo, choices, Garrett’s eyes, Garrett’s face, Garrett not wanting me.
“Can we start over?” my mom asks.
“I am really, really tired. It’s almost midnight and I’ve got school tomorrow.”
“No you don’t,” she says. “Not in the morning, at least. You have an appointment to meet with the Addo for counseling.”
“Counseling,” I echo flatly.
“He’s going to give you your options, Nalena, and I want you to consider them very, very carefully. You’re so young to be making choices like this...just please...”
“I know, I know,” I say sourly. “Don’t be Contego.”
My mother frowns.
“I just don’t want you to make a decision based on what Garrett is.”
“And why would I care what he is?” I ask, crossing my arms in a hard knot.
“Because the Contego can only have relationships... romantic relationships...with other Contego. And I can see how tempting it could be to make a decision based on a crush, but…”
My spine is an iron rod. I drop my voice to a hot whisper. “Just so you know, it’s not a crush anymore. The only reason Garrett’s been so nice to me is because he was helping to look after you, for this Addo guy.”
“Some of that might be true, but not all of it,” my mom says. “Especially not with the way he’s been watching you.”
“What do you want, proof? He just told me so himself!”
“Well, whatever he said, I know how these things work. I just need you to remember that a high school crush doesn’t mean that you’ll end up together down the road. Even if you are Contego.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I snap at her. “I know he’s still out of my league.”
I see the hard shot of my anger ripple across her face and I don’t care. Insisting that Garrett truly likes me, after he’s admitted that he was really on some kind of reconnaissance mission, is like driving nails into my heart. And insinuating that I would chase a one-sided relationship just twists the nails.
“That’s not what I mean,” she says, but she gives up and drops a kiss on my forehead before going back into the kitchen.
I fold up miserably on the couch, pulling the blankets over my head and spend the rest of the night thinking of all the reasons why what I told my mom might be true. With Garrett’s words in my head, pretty much confirming it, I just let go and fall asleep.
I sleep in a peaceful bubble and wake in one too. Everything is okay until the moment I open my eyes and remember what I’d been thinking about, before I fell asleep. The bubble pops and my heart sinks, settling into the rut of thought that I’d carved out last night. Garrett’s interest in me is nothing more than his job. He’s been hanging around, getting tangled up in my messy life, while he was really only here to ensure my mom’s safety. I should be grateful, but I’m not.
I lay on the couch, staring at the Reeses’ ceiling. I listen to Iris try to sweet-talk Garrett into making her pancakes. I am paralyzed by his voice, deep and kind, even as he laughs and tells Iris she’s not getting what she wants. There’s no way I can get up. I can’t think of one thing to say to him that won’t sound moronic, coming from a girl who couldn’t figure out that she is just a token in the game.
I glance over at the other couch, but my mom is not on it. Her blanket is folded neatly at the end. She’s probably writing at the dining room table, since I put her so far behind by making her sick. After what she said to me last night, insinuating how shallow I might be in making my choices, I’m having a hard time caring if she’s stuck writing for three days straight without sleep.
The phone rings in the kitchen and Garrett picks it up.
“Hello?” he says. Pause. “Hello?”
He pauses once more and then runs through the Reeses’ family joke: “For Sean hit one, for Mark, two, for Brandon, three.” He pauses again. I think of Jen being on the other end, holding her breath and waiting to say hello.
“For Garrett, hit four,” he says. Pause. “Hello?”
My heart sinks, knowing Jen is probably doing her little cheerleader giggle in the phone, acting all shy and sweet. But then, Garrett says, “Last chance to pick a number or I’m hanging up.”
I realize that it’s either not Jen or she’s too chicken to say a word to him. I put my pillow over my smiling face as I hear him hang up the receiver. Even if Garrett’s not in my league, at least he’s not in Jen’s either.
Seconds later, someone taps my arm that is holding my pillow in place. I erase the smile and pull the pillow back. Garrett is leaning over me, his face upside down. We’re foreheads to chins.
“Good morning,” he says.
“Hi,” I say. I should want to slam my pillow in his face. I should want to hate him. Or at least, not care about him. But when he grins, I’m still ice cream on a radiator. I sit up, angry with both of us.
“If you want a shower, you should hit it now,” he says. “It’s eight, and we’ve got an appointment with the Addo in an hour, remember?”
Of course I remember. It’s only the outcome of my entire life at stake. My big, fat destiny. As clear as it was to Garrett that he should be one of the Contego, it’s pretty crystal to me that I shouldn’t. Ugh. My mom is right. It would be stupid to follow a crush into a war zone.
“We have an appointment? What do you mean we?”
“I’m taking you to the Addo’s. We’ll go on to school afterward.”
I just groan. I’m supposed to meet the Grand Pooba of fate and then, for a finale, scurry off to school, so I’m not tardy for science. None of this makes a lot of sense and I grumble about it all the way through my shower, and while I use my cast to pop the stitches on another shirt sleeve, and while I fumble with trying to dry my hair.
My mom is on the couch downstairs, hunched over a stack of copy paper. I stop at the far end from her when I’m ready to leave. Garrett goes out to warm up the car. My mom’s too absorbed in her writing to look up.
“We’re going,” I tell her.
“Okay,” she says, her pen still moving, her eyes still on the page.
“I’m going to tell the guy to forget about it.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted me to do?” I stare at her, trying to burn an extra eye hole in the side of her head, since neither of the two she has will look at me.
“It’s not up to me, Nali.” Her voice is on a tight rope. “Or him. It’s all up to you.”
“But you told me you wanted me to...”
“It’s not up to me,” she says again, and that’s when I notice. The paper in her lap, filled with names and stories, is smeared and running like blue, winter branches, all over the page. However long she’s been crying, the paper is soaked and it has holes in it where she kept moving her pen, digging through the layers, trying to keep writing, despite her sadness.
She’s my mom. We’ve only ever had each other. I won’t do this to her.
“It’ll be okay, Mom,” I tell her. “I’ll make the right decision.”
“I just want you to know I love you,” she says. “No matter what.”
We pull out of the driveway and Garrett turns off the radio, instead of turning it up.
“You ran out of my room last night,” he says.
“No I didn’t,” I say, trying to make my voice sound natural. It doesn’t really work. I look out the window so I don’t have to look at the soft shingles of his hair. Or the way his shirt clings to him. Like I want to. Whatever. I punch down anything inside of me that tries to float. “My mom was sick.”
“I didn’t want to lie to you. Everything I told you last night was accurate, but...”
“It’s fine. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know about my mom, so you can keep her safe.” I hold my mouth straight and solid, even though the edges try to crumble into a frown. It’s what I do before I cry but. I. Will. Not. Cry. I grind my toes into the bottoms of my shoes and bite the inside of my cheek, the one opposite of Garrett, in case he’s looking.
“Nalena, it was accurate, but it wasn’t everything I should’ve said.” I hate how his voice melts me. I bite harder and push against my sole until I feel my toe pop a new hole in my sock.
“It’s fine,” I tell him. “Really. It’s all good.”
“Come on. Don’t be mad at me.”
“I’m not mad at all.” I add a shrug. Nice touch.
“I’m going to be able to drive a truck through the hole you’re making in your cheek.” He chuckles.
I release my cheek and glare out the window. He doesn’t say anything else, which is even more infuriating. I want him to explain himself, and apologize, and beg for my forgiveness. Instead, he steers the car back in the direction of school, and mine and my mom’s apartment, but we turn into one of the trailer parks on the way.
Valley Estates. It is known as Smelly Mistakes at school. The nickname came from a dispute with a garbage collection agency that refused to pick up the park’s trash for three weeks, after the park had lapsed on payment. I laughed when Jen first told me the story, relieved that I wasn’t a kid from there. But when I became The Waste, even the kids from Smelly Mistakes got booted up a notch, and the whole nicknaming thing wasn’t such a crime to them anymore.
Unfortunately for Smelly Mistakes, the nickname is pretty accurate, even though trash collection resumed its regular schedule. The park itself can pass as a landfill, full of decrepit single-wides that have been rotting there since the late 60’s. Lots of them have American flags for window curtains, messed up siding, and yards so overgrown that the trailers seem hidden in them, like rotten Easter eggs. One trailer has a display of huge stuffed animals, all missing their eyes, right out in the open air, on the front window ledge. There are even more animals leaning through the rails of the uncovered wood porch, so rain soaked and weather-faded that the things look more like pools of puppies and bears than toys. I think one was once an elephant—the trunk hosing down the front steps like it’s reaching out for help on its own.
We turn onto Hellman, which is now just Hell, since someone has blacked out the rest of the letters with spray paint. The new name seems a more accurate description anyway.
Garrett pulls into the driveway of a single wide that looks as bad as any of the others, except that it is sitting length-wise across two lots, instead of lined up, forward-facing, like the rest, so there is more of its bad to see. It is dingy white with an even dingier yellow pinstripe running down the length of it. Rickety fiberglass steps lead up to the bare front door in the middle. At least there are no stuffed animals.
“This is it,” Garrett says. We get out and I let him lead the way up to the door. Our hands dangle free at our sides. The stairs rock like a balance board, but Garrett doesn’t seem worried about the steps falling over like I do. He knocks the usual thump-dada-thump-thump and pushes open the unlocked door.
“C’mon.” He reaches back and takes my hand without asking for it. A trillion tiny synapses fire through me. I should let go. I should be working harder at hating him for using me. I just don’t want to.
Right off, I see that there’s a million weird things about the inside of this trailer, but the most noticeable is that the whole thing seems to be one huge kitchen, with two closed doors at the far right end, side by side. There are no partitions. Just a huge yellow room that is so brightly white and yellow, I feel like I need to squint for the first sixty seconds. The walls are canary-artificial-banana-sunshine-lemons yellow. The countertop and the appliances are all white. The floor is off-white with lemonade diamonds.
The table, which runs the length of the entire sprawling kitchen, is probably larger than the one used at the Last Supper. There must be at least twelve chairs on each side, and the entire table top is covered in one continuous yellow linen cloth, under a clear plastic cover.
“Addo!” Garrett calls. It sounds like he is announcing us at a frat party, not at some holy man’s house. I touch his arm, but Garrett seems to take the gesture as something it’s not and pulls my hand closer. I fight the tickle of a smile. I really hate myself. Garrett shouts again, “Hey Addo, you’ve got company!”
One of the back doors opens with a toilet flush and a man steps out, wiping wet streaks from his hands onto the front of his gray sweatshirt.
“Company! Fabulous,” he says.
The man is chubby, but only in the middle. He has a deep brown mushroom cap of hair that doesn’t cover his ears. Knowing he’s a wise man, and with hair like that, I expect him to be wearing a flowing monk robe, but instead, he’s wearing gray sweat pants, bunched up just under his knees. His glaring white knee socks are strapped into brown leather sandals. I’m embarrassed the second he catches me looking at them.
“I call these my Jesus slippers.” He grins, raising one foot in the air. I smother a laugh even though Garrett doesn’t.
“Isn’t that, uh...” I stop, realizing how rude I might sound without meaning to at all. The man doesn’t just laugh, he guffaws and chortles and busts a gut. I’ve never heard a laugh as full of laughter as his.
“Do you mean disrespectful? Blasphemous?” he asks. “Like Jesus, Jesus, bo-beesus, banana fanana fo-feesus, me-my, mo meesus...blasphemous to Jesus?”
I just stand there like an idiot, not sure what to say to this strange man. He seems more of a wise guy than a wise man. After all, he just name-gamed a third of the Holy Trinity.
“Uh, yeah,” I manage to squeeze out. The man giggles.
“I doubt that Jesus ever minds his name being said. I sure wouldn’t. Especially when it’s this funny.” He giggles again, placing his foot back on the floor.
While I am still speechless and blinking at him, Garrett introduces us.
“Addo, this is Nalena,” he says.
“Nice to meechya, Nalena. You can call me Larry. Or Addo. Or Addo Larry. I’ll answer to most things, so it’s up to you, really.”
“Okay,” I say. I decide on just Addo in my head, since it sounds more holy. And I know this is supposed to be a Holy Thing I’m doing, even though the Addo seems less holy than my socks and his kitchen-trailer seems more screwball than anything else.
“Not much of a talker, are you?” he giggles. This whole thing seems so ridiculous—from the blazing yellow kitchen, to the food smear on his sweatshirt collar—that I can’t help but smile at him. “Tea?”
“We’ll both have some,” Garrett says. Addo raises an eyebrow.
“Oh, so you think I’m letting you stay?”
“I suppose I can. This once.” Addo shrugs. He pours a cup of hot water from an electric kettle, plugged into the wall. He loads a tea ball and drops it into the cup that he hands me.
“I’ve got the Contego sign,” I blurt.
“Let it steep a bit, and then we’ll see.” Addo motions to my cup. “A Cusp might be fun in my golden years. I assume your mother knows? What did Evangeline have to say about it?”
He says my mom’s name so easily, as if he knows her better than I do. It shocks me, and while I start to sputter an answer, Garrett answers the question instead.
“It involved vomit.” he says.
“I bet it did.” Addo laughs. I take a drink of tea, watching this strange little man. “The Alo are born Alo for a good reason. No balls for fighting.”
I nearly spit my mouthful of tea across the table. Instead, I choke, and Garrett claps me on the back.
“Sorry, sorry,” the Addo apologizes with a grin. “It is your parents, after all.”
“Just my mom.” I cough. “I don’t have a father.”
“Not true,” he says. “We all have fathers. That’s the way things are. Even if Roger hasn’t earned any awards.”
“You know my father?” I ask.
“Indeedy.” Addo hums over the rim of his tea cup. The steam curls around his face. He lowers his cup and points to mine. “What do you think of the tea? I think it’s not bad, if you’re not expecting much.”
“What do you know about my father?”
“Hmmm,” he says. “What do you know about your father?”
“Well, I know more than that,” Addo says. Then, all he does is hum and thump his fingertips on the table.
“Would you tell me about him?” I ask.
“Certainly,” he says. “After you drink your tea.”
It strikes me as incredibly rude, teasing me with info on a father I’ve never even known. I pick up my cup and slam the contents. I have never even seen my father, aside from the 5 x 7 frame in the living room, and it’s infuriating for this wise guy to tell me I have to drink my tea before he’ll dish his details.
Even so, I instantly realize how stupid my decision is. The tea is so hot, it sends sparks down my throat. My uvula shoots up in flames. I’m back to choking and Garrett pounding me on the back. My stomach is a fire bomb.
“Well, then, let’s have a look.” The Addo sounds delighted as he grabs my cup. “We don’t have to check to see if you’re impulsive.”
The Addo opens the tea ball and dumps the contents into the bottom of my cup. He examines it as my eyes weep and burn. Garrett keeps his hand on my back and starts rubbing in slow circles. It’s the only thing on my entire body that feels any good.
“Huh. Ironical,” the Addo says. His shoulders jerk backward as he says it. “Contego, you most definitely are.”
“I’m deciding against it, though. I just want a normal life.” I cough. Saying it out loud sends a jolt of nausea through me. What makes it worse is that Garrett’s hand falls from my back. Everything about his face is wide open and stunned.
“Aren’t you even going to listen to the options first?” Garrett asks.
“Maybe there isn’t one for her.” The Addo shrugs.
“There isn’t,” I say. I want to tell Garrett I’m sorry about not doing the right thing - like he is. I just can’t do it to my mom.
Garrett stands up and walks to the window overlooking a tangle of thorny branches and leaves that cover what might’ve once been a backyard. I stare at the inverted triangle of his back, my stomach rolling with how I’ve let him down. I don’t know how long a time has passed before the Addo finally breaks my concentration.
“Well, kids, the show’s over. That’s it for today,” Addo says, weirdly cheerful. I look back at him and his smile cuts through the sickening static that crackles between Garrett and I. “I’ll see you again tomorrow.”
“Why?” I ask. Dizzy and sick. “I made my decision.”
“Why, why, why?” Addo chortles as Garrett heads toward the door without looking at me. I get to my feet, wishing I could sit a while longer. Addo is still rambling. “Why anything? Why do we all have our jobs to do? It’s another day off school, isn’t it? Come. I’ll have cookies. Good ones. The kind without nuts.”
When I think of returning tomorrow, the idea seems to soothe my stomach instead of upsetting it more. Addo gives me a devilish grin as I step out onto the rickety stairs behind Garrett. I remember that I didn’t get to hear anything about my father, but when I open my mouth to ask, the Addo closes the door on me. There is nothing else I can do, besides follow Garrett to the car.
Garrett’s knuckles are white on the steering wheel. I keep my mouth shut. We speed out of Smelly Mistakes and at the main road, he goes in the opposite direction of the school. He jerks the wheel at a side street and the tires squeal with the turn. I lurch sideways.
“Could you not do that?” I ask. A muscle hops in his jaw, but he slows down a little. “Where are we going?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you’d like to go wherever everyone else does. Someplace normal,” he says. His tone sends a flare through me.
“What are you so upset about?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Garrett says. The jagged edge in his voice doesn’t sound as angry as, maybe, annoyed. Which, in turn, makes me more angry with him.
“You’re mad that I didn’t pick what you did,” I tell him.
“Nooo. Why would that bother me? It’s your decision, right?”
“That’s right,” I shoot back at him. “It is my decision. And why do you care so much anyway? Just take me back to your house. Then you can spy directly on my mom, instead of using me to do it. You don’t need me for that anymore.”
“What are you talking about? I wasn’t...”
“Just take me back,” I say. “Then you can go do whatever you want, wherever you want...with whoever you want.”
Garrett snaps his mouth shut and turns the car toward his house, but the ride back isn’t any smoother.
Garrett unlocks the door for me, swings it open, and then turns away. He leaves without another word, tearing down the street in his car. I dump my purse and my backpack on the floor near the door and kick the pack with one foot. My mom has moved from the downstairs couch, up to the kitchen table. There is a four inch stack of paper beside her, all filled with her micro-font.
I drop into the seat across from her and her pen pauses.
“What are you doing back here?” she asks. “Garrett was supposed to take you to school after the Addo’s.”
“Tell me about Roger,” I say.
“Your father?” she murmurs.
“Yes, Mom. My father. The Addo said he knows him. I thought he was gone. I thought you didn’t know where he is.”
“Not exactly…until recently,” She lays her pen down.
“What? Where is he? Why haven’t you said anything?”
“What did the Addo tell you about him?”
“Nothing yet. I don’t want to hear about my father from the Addo. I want to hear it from you.” My mother sighs, sits back in her chair, and frowns at me.
“Okay. What do you want to know?” she asks.
The phone rings. It works like a bell in a boxing ring. I look away and my mom pushes herself up from the table. She picks up the receiver on the third ring.
“Hello?” she says. I think it is probably Jen, mistaking my mom’s voice for mine. Good. My mom can finally hear what I hear all the time. She listens, the pause stretching, and her eyes slide up to stare at me.
“It’s me,” she says into the mouth piece. Her tone is metal. Cold, inflexible. “Yes, Evangeline…what do you mean you keep calling…well, this isn’t my house. I don’t answer the phone…I know she went to see the Addo…of course, for counseling.”
“Who is it?” I whisper to her, but my mom turns away from me, lowering her voice to a growl.
“I am honoring our agreement, Roger…Roger…listen to me.”
I gasp. It’s one thing to think you have a father and it’s totally another for him to suddenly be real. He hasn’t been around for seventeen years. To have him come alive now, a 3D version of a framed photo, makes my nerves go thin and tight.
I yank on my mom’s sleeve and whisper, “What does he want?”
She puts up her wait a minute finger. “Roger…you’re not listening…I am…”
It’s only a second more before my mom’s shoulders drop and she slams the receiver back onto the cradle.
Instead of explaining anything, she picks up the receiver again and calls Mrs. Reese.
“Miranda? Yes, it’s me. I’m sorry to bother you at work...Yes, we’re okay, but Roger just called...yes, Roger...mmm hmm...I’m sure it’s nothing but…maybe that would be best...alright. We’ll see you soon.”
She hangs up the phone and her eyes find mine.
I gape. Like she just hit me with a brick.
“You talk to him?” I ask. She goes to the front door and checks to be sure it’s locked. I trail after her, into the kitchen, where she closes the blinds over the sink.
“Your father and I have talked a few times recently. I didn’t want to bother you with it, but he turned up, knowing you were seventeen and wanting to make sure that our agreement still stood.”
“Agreement?” As if this is a normal thing. My mom never talks about him and now that he’s popped up like Rumplestiltskin, his phone call sends the entire cavalry screaming back. And we’re closing up the house like a coffin. I can’t imagine them talking, let alone having any kind of an agreement. I follow close at my mom’s heels, into the living room.
Her eyes dart around the backyard before she closes the blinds on the doors. I pull the curtains over the windows, even though I have no idea why. My mom closes the curtains on her side of the room.
“We made an agreement a long time ago, Nalena. When you were just a toddler. He agreed to stay away from us as long as I kept you out of the community. And as long as you decided to continue living a normal life.”
“Wait, Mom,” I say. We climb the steps to the top floor and end up in Iris’s room, overlooking the front yard. “Why does he have to stay away?”
My mom snaps the hot pink blinds shut before she turns back to me.
“Your father is a troubled man, Nalena,” she says.
Before she has a chance to go any further, I hear the front door shake downstairs, as if someone has just tried to walk through it and failed. The two of us gasp. The whirring inside me breaks open and I’m thrown out of myself, standing in front of my mom and my own body. I stare at my mother, hovering beside me, unprotected. I try to reach out and envelope her, but my field works like skin and my mother is outside of it.
The door rattles and there is a gritty sound, like a knife snaking through the metal knob. My mind is spinning, What did Garrett tell me to do? Believe? Do it? Jump in? I can’t remember. My mom gasps as the door pops open and bangs against the wall. In desperation to enclose my mom in my protection, I clasp my hands together and throw the loop, of my arm and cast, awkwardly over her head, pulling her tightly to me as I angle my back to the door.
“Hello?” Garrett shouts from the foyer. The sound of his voice shatters my bubble and I am sucked back into my skin and bones, squeezing my mom to me so hard that my arm throbs inside my cast. Garrett shouts again, his voice dropping to a deep growl, “Nalena? Evangeline?”
“We’re here,” my mom calls back. Her voice is squeezed, as she pats my un-casted arm reassuringly. I loosen my grip and drop my arms as Garrett’s footsteps bound up the stairs. He appears around the doorway, his brow smoothing the moment his eyes find me. My mom’s voice, solid now that it’s out of my death grip, assures him too, “We’re okay, Garrett. Just a little unnerved.”
I don’t have a chance to ask my mom anything else. Within the next five minutes, the rest of the Reeses pour in. Mrs. Reese is first, then Sean and Mr. Reese, and I am stunned when Mark and Brandon come in, materialized from school as if it is easy to slip out, let alone be excused, and make it home so quickly.
“How did you get here so fast?” I ask when Mark plops down beside me at the table. “You’ve got a Batman-beam or something?”
He pulls a cell phone from his pocket, holding it up with a cheesy smile.
“Get in the 21st, Nali.” He grins. “You should’ve waited until tomorrow. We could’ve gotten a four-day weekend.”
“This isn’t about you getting more vacation time,” Garrett says as he strong-arms Mark out of the seat. Mark squawks and goes for the seat on my other side, but Sean slides into the spot.
“Get your own seat, Marky-Mark,” Sean says.
“You guys suck,” Mark whines.
“They do suck,” Brandon agrees from across the table. Mr. Reese walks into the dining room and clears his throat with a piercing glance at his youngest son.
“Stink,” Mr. Reese says. “You guys stink. I expect better language, gentlemen.”
Mark throws himself into a seat next to his mom. Mrs. Reese turns her attention to my mother.
“What did Roger say, exactly, Evangeline?” she asks. The room goes silent, waiting for her response. My mother opens her mouth to answer and the telephone rings as if she is doing ventriloquism. Mr. Reese’s hand hovers over the receiver on the wall. He motions to Brandon.
“Go check caller ID,” he says. Brandon shoots off, upstairs, to the Reeses’ bedroom. The phone rings again and Brandon calls down, “Nothing, Dad. Out of Area. Same as the last call.”
“Evangeline,” Mr. Reese says quickly. “I’m going to put it on the speaker phone. You talk first.”
My mom nods. Her chest expands with a large breath as Mr. Reese pushes the speaker phone button on the third ring.
“Hello?” my mom says, her tone flat and determined.
“Evangeline?” The voice on the other end is male, hoarse, clipped. I look at my mother, but her eyes are on the center of the table, concentrating.
“It’s me, Roger,” she says.
“Don’t hang up on me again, understand? I’m just trying to talk with you.”
“You have to listen to me, or I don’t have anything else to say to you.”
“Oh, but I think you do,” he says with an undercurrent of a dark laugh. It sloshes inside me like the flu. “We had an understanding.”
“And nothing’s changed.”
“Oh now, Liar Liar…I’m not stupid, Angie. I know she received the sign. I know she’s been to the Addo’s.”
Mr. Reese waves his arms to get my mom’s attention. He raises his hands in a question and my mom nods.
“How would you know that, Roger? You agreed to stay away,” my mom says.
“Stay away so you can do whatever you want? It’s a good thing I know people that’ll watch out for me and let me know when I’m getting screwed,” my father says.
“I don’t know who would be saying that. Especially because I’m still honoring our…”
“Who? What’s it gonna take for you to understand that your little community isn’t perfect, Angie? There’s scum everywhere. Just because you think I’m the only one...”
“Look, Roger, I don’t…”
“NO, YOU LOOK!” His shout echoes through the phone. “You ain’t gonna make my kid an Alo, you hear me? I saw her at the Addo’s today. I’m watching! You’re just using her to get at your old man’s Memory and I promise you this, Angie, you ain’t never gonna get that! Not after you took my baby away from me for my whole life! You took her and I took him. You’re never gonna get that Memory, you got it? I made sure of it!”
“This isn’t about my father,” my mom says. Her eyes are red with tears, but she keeps her voice steady. “Nalena only gone to the Addo for counseling. She’s told me that she’s choosing a simple life.”
“Liar liar…Memory on fire!” His laughter spews out of the phone, rough and raw. My head is spinning with his ugly voice. I rub my temple and Garrett reaches for me, but I don’t want to be touched. I scoot back and my chair rubs a tiny squeak from the floor. I hear my father gasp on the other end.
“You got me on a goddamn loud speaker?” he shouts. “What the hell kind of game are you playing, Angie? Why do you have to make this thing harder than it already is?”
The words hit me like concrete. I stand and stumble backward, the chair crashing to the floor. My father is still yelling, but his voice drains away to static in my ears. Garrett is on his feet, reaching to steady me. His mouth is moving, but I can’t hear him either. The veins in Mr. Reese’s neck are straining as he rages soundlessly into the phone. My mother is staring at me, her skin paler than ashes. Our eyes meet and she asks, with nothing but her wide pupils and the wrinkle between her eyes.
My mouth forms the answer, even though I can’t hear my own sound. I know who he is.
Who? Her wrinkle deepens.
He’s the man in the woods.