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Waxen and colorless, my mother’s face appears dead. Her eyes are open, but she has less than no expression, as if her all muscles have fainted.
She casts her eyes away from mine and the sound of the room comes back in a whooshing blast, an explosion sucked into a bottle.
“He’s after me,” I say.
“He’s not in his right mind any longer, Evangeline,” Mrs. Reese says. She leans across the table, placing a sympathetic hand over my mother’s. “Tell her the rest. It’s time.”
“Let’s give them space,” Mr. Reese says. He begins issuing gentle commands to his family. “Garrett, you go get Iris from daycare. Mark and Brandon, one of you needs to keep an eye on the backyard and one on the front. Miranda and Sean, hop on the internet and see what you can find. I’m going to make some calls and spread the word.”
The Reeses dissipate, like air out of the same bottle that was too full only a moment ago. My mom and I are alone in the empty dining room. She stands and comes to me, taking the seat that Garrett leaves.
I’m on overload to the point where my mind is going numb. I want my mother and I to travel back in time two weeks, safely situated in our old life. I would happily return to the piles of paper, the ostracization at school, and only the vague understanding that I have a father. As I’m wishing it, my mom speaks.
“I’ve told you your father was Alo, Nalena, but that’s only partly true,” her voice quivers. Her back is so rigid in the chair, I am having a hard time focusing on anything she’s saying. “He was Alo. He turned away from it. He chose instead to live a selfish life.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted me to choose?” I ask. How can she want me to choose it, when she makes it sound like a terrible choice that my father has made? I am hollow. I don’t know how to care anymore. She twists her ring finger so hard that her knuckle seems to twist out of place.
My mom’s eyes fill and tears separate her features in streams.
“No. I want a Simple life for you. A selfish life is something else entirely. It’s a slippery path. Your father found it while I was still pregnant with you.” Her eyes are far away, remembering. She returns to the conversation with a sad grin. "Your dad was a man that was easy to like. It's so hard to see what's important when you're young. He told the funniest jokes and everyone seemed to love with Roger. Your grandpa, my father, used to call your dad 'A Good Time Charlie'. Wherever we went, everyone knew Roger, and I thought it meant that he would be a good person for me. But we weren't married long when he began associating with the wrong people. He began living only for himself. He turned away from his responsibilities as one of the Alo. He stopped recording Memories even though we were still living off our community. He wanted a change, a drastic one, and he insisted I go along with him, since I was his wife.
“But I wouldn’t do it.” She sniffs and wipes her nose on the back of her hand. “And he wouldn’t leave the community without me…because of you.” Her grin is miserable. “Roger wanted everyone to see him as the perfect father. He was so concerned with what people thought of him. But the Ianua’s enemies, a community called The Fury, they have a knack for convincing people that 'perfect' is attainable. That's how your father got sucked in. He believed that there was something out there he didn't already have.”
“But I refused to follow him into a selfish life with The Fury. I knew what it meant. The Fury doesn’t value marriage or family or relationships. They don’t have commitments to anyone or anything. Each individual lives entirely for themselves and over time, they go insane with it. I couldn’t even be sure that Roger wouldn’t abandon you at some point, when his lifestyle permeated him completely.
“It finally came to an impasse. He wouldn’t turn back and I wouldn’t turn away. I suggested we live apart. The second it was out of my mouth, he became vicious. He wrapped his hands around my neck and told me he’d kill me first. Kill me, and cut you out of my stomach, before he would ever allow me to divorce him.”
Tears break off in veins down her cheeks. I take a shaky breath, my face wet too. She wipes her cheeks with her fingers and then rubs her neck as she continues.
“Your grandfather knew what was happening all along. He was my best friend. So, when your dad went out one night, I took my chance and I ran. Grandpa gave me the money to hide. I took it and I hid the two of us.”
Her face crumples. Her weeping comes harder, as if each sob is ripped from her chest. It panics me. She folds her hands over herself, locking herself in her own embrace.
“I had no idea what he would do...I had no idea.” She rocks on the chair, sobbing so loosely that I am unhinged. I need her to hold me and say this will be okay. I put my hands out to her, but her eyes are terrified and distant. I can’t seem to reach wherever she is.
“He killed him...” she moans. “For helping me. Roger killed my father! I didn’t see it on TV or hear it from the police. I knew it because I was supposed to write my father’s Memory! I was at the kitchen table, and you were kicking inside me, and the sunshine was coming through the window warming my arms, and then...his name was in my head! I was sure there was something wrong with me. I tried to convince myself that I was just thinking of him, the way people think of anyone...not the way the Alo think of memories.
“For three hours I thought your grandfather’s name and couldn’t write it because I couldn’t let him die! And Roger knew it,” she growls. “Roger knew how I would find out what he’d done! And then when I did try to write your grandfather’s Memory, I couldn’t write any more than his name. His Memory was stolen from me. Roger wrote it and hid it away so my father’s knowledge would be lost forever. It was Roger’s vengeance for me leaving him!”
I am suddenly alone, in darkness, floating in my mother’s grief.
I am connected to it.
I can’t swallow. Tears stream out of me. My mom pulls me back from the darkness and into the room, her arms looping around me. The dining room lights are too bright. We sob together, convulsing in each other’s arms.
It’s always been us.
My mom rubs my back like she used to, when I was little. The sobs slow to sniffles.
“He’s trying to kill me now, isn’t he?” My voice is rough and waterlogged.
My mom pulls in a deep, shaky breath.
“Over my dead body.” Her words are vicious and sure. A blazing island, away from the sorrow. “He will never get near you again.”
“But he already has, Mom.” I lift my cast and her arms fall away. “And I told the Addo I chose a Simple Life. I told him already. Maybe it isn’t the right thing to do.”
“Wait a minute. You already told the Addo your choice?” she asks, confused. I nod.
“Today. I told him right away that I wanted a Simple Life.”
“What did he say? Didn’t he give you anything? A stone?”
“Stone?” I ask. “No, I drank tea. And he told me to come back tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Her voice is distant, worried.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “But if you are going back, you haven’t chosen yet.”
“But I did, I swear! You can ask Garrett!” I insist.
“Shh, shhh, shhh,” my mom comforts me. “I believe you. But something isn’t right.”
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It feels like only seconds, although a half hour has passed by the time Iris stomps in the door with Garrett behind her. She trails a long white sheet of paper on the floor, slathered with oozy yellow finger paint. Mrs. Reese comes from upstairs, shaking her head at my mom to indicate that the internet didn’t reveal anything useful.
“It’s Addo’s house.” Iris holds up her runny picture.
“Beautiful,” Mrs. Reese tells her, clipping it to the fridge. Mr. Reese comes down from his bedroom.
“VanWeider will excuse Nalena’s absence,” he announces. “But, if she doesn’t take her final exams, her grades will be averaged as they stand.”
“There’s a bigger problem, Basil,” my mom says. “Nalena said she already told the Addo that she chose the Simple Life. She said he didn’t honor it.”
“No, he didn’t,” Garrett says, leaning on the kitchen counter. He pulls his hair back from his temples, holds it for a moment, and then lets it fall back to its regular style. “Probably because she didn’t want to listen to the options.”
It feels like a slam.
“Wait a minute,” I say, turning on Garrett. “You said you never discussed any options with him when you were counseled either.”
“At least I would’ve listened if he’d offered.”
I narrow my eyes. “I would’ve too.”
“Enough,” Mr. Reese says. “I’m sure the Addo has his reasons. I guess we’ll know more once you meet with him tomorrow.”
I cross my arms over my chest.
“Fat lot of good being Contego did me anyway,” I grumble. Sean nudges me with his elbow.
“What do you mean?” he asks.
“When my mom and I were up in Iris’s room, we heard someone coming in the door and we were flipping out. The spinning happened, and my bubble surrounded me, but I couldn’t get it around my mom.”
“That’s normal,” Mr. Reese says. “The protection only makes you a stronger protector. It isn’t a magical shield that you can throw in front of anyone else. It may not even protect you, if you don’t know how to use it. However, once you’ve been Impressioned, we can teach you how to maximize your abilities to protect others.”
“Exactly,” Mrs. Reese adds, turning to my mom. “You know, Evangeline, whatever Nalena chooses, she should at least learn to protect herself. Especially after what happened tonight.”
My mother’s face is grim. She eyes my cast.
“I agree.” She nods stiffly. “The sooner the better.”
“After dinner, then,” Mr. Reese says. No one bothers to ask what I think. I couldn’t care less about defending myself, but I’m glad no one asks what I’m thinking, as I watch my mom from across the table. She’s got dark rings under her eyes. I don’t think it is just the late nights of writing that are doing that. I can’t stop thinking of how I can keep her safe if I am Impressioned.
“You need to eat something, sometime,” Garrett tells me after dinner, as I carry my full dish to the sink.
“He’s right you know,” Sean says, but when I frown at him, he still dumps my food down the garbage disposal.
“Thanks for the tip,” I grumble. My stomach is filled to overflowing with murder and Garrett’s remarks, useless signs and useless bubbles. There’s not really room for anything else to digest.
“Put on your shoes, Nalena,” Mr. Reese says. “We’ll clean up later. Let’s show you how to use your field while we still have some light.”
Everyone, even Iris, puts on their shoes, and we all tromp out in the Reeses’ backyard. I don’t want an audience, but I’m too tired of it all to do anything but follow everyone toward the gazebo. My mom, Sean, and Mrs. Reese take a seat on the wood benches inside, while Iris lingers on the steps.
“Ok, first things first,” Mr. Reese says. “What you need to know is that your abilities run on faith.”
“They’re hotwired to it,” Mark says.
“However you want to put it,” Mr. Reese agrees. “The first step in protecting yourself is to let your body do what it needs to do. Like this.”
In a fluid, lightening fast movement, he pulls a ring of keys from his pocket and hurls them at my head. I see it coming, feel the bubble blow out around me, and watch my own hand reach up and snatch the jingling ring from the air.
“Good catch!” Mrs. Reese cheers and Iris claps. My mother gasps and my bubble explodes like a wave crashing against a rock.
“Do it again!” Iris squeals, but when her mother hushes her, Iris blushes. Humiliated, she wanders to the edge of the koi pond, squatting to make roads in the pebbled bank.
“A few things just happened,” Mr. Reese says. “You see how your impulses took over? You didn’t have time to doubt them. If you had, the keys would’ve hit your face.”
“Exactly,” my mother says under her breath.
“Nothing would’ve happened, Alo Evangeline,” Mark assures her. “I would’ve caught them before they slammed her in the sniffer!”
Brandon rolls his eyes, which makes me glad I caught them myself.
“Your field,” Mr. Reese continues, ignoring the boys, “the thing you call your bubble...it breaks the moment you either perceive safety or if you doubt your body’s natural ability to defend you. Your field is in direct connection with your body and the environment. When you are aligned and focused, you simply react and your instincts protect you.”
“My field is in harmony with my environment?” It sounds so sci-fi that I begin to laugh. Hard. I grip my stomach with the sheer nuttiness of it, but my amusement is cut short as Mark scoops up a handful of pebbles. In one motion, he turns and whips the whole handful at me. My bubble is instantaneous and Mr. Reese coaches me as the pebbles fly toward me.
“Let go of your thoughts and just move. That’s right...” Mr. Reese’s voice is calm.
There are at least twenty tiny rocks, spaced like an asteroid shower. I can see the colors of them, the smoothness of each stone and, somehow, it is easy for me to slap the nearest pebble away with my palm.
“HAMMER IT!” Mark shouts. The thought spirals in my brain and I wonder what he means...if I should move out of the way instead...if Mark thinks there will be too many to bat away…if I should be using my fist somehow...and my bubble bursts. I only have time to shut my eyes and throw my hands over my head as the hail of pebbles batters me.
“You idiot.” Brandon swats his brother. Mr. Reese narrows his eyes at Mark, rolling his tongue in his mouth as though he’s holding back from saying something he shouldn’t. Finally, he turns back to me.
“You okay, Nalena?” Mr. Reese asks. I’m fine, except that Garrett is smirking.
“What’s so funny?” I ask him.
“Hammer it?” Garrett chuckles. “That’s what made you lose it?”
“Shut up,” I tell him.
Mr. Reese claps his hands together and rubs them. “Yes, Garrett. Shut up,” he says.
“Would you do it again, Mark?” I say. “I want to try it again.”
“It’s no fun if you’re ready for it.” He shrugs, but it doesn’t matter. Brandon has already picked up a sizeable rock from edge of the koi pond and launched it at me. My field surrounds me, but it wavers. I’d expected pebbles, but there is a full-on rock coming at me. A vein of panic flashes through me and my bubble shatters.
Garrett and Mr. Reese both shout at once, “Whoa!”
I hear a collective gasp from the gazebo, feel the air move around me, a swish in front of my face, and then, everything is still and I am focusing on a blurry ridge of a vein, running along the back of Garrett’s hand. He’s holding the rock, maybe two inches away, from the bridge of my nose. Mr. Reese is on the other side of me, his hands curled around my upper arm, ready to pull me out of the way.
“Nice catch,” Mr. Reese congratulates his son and lets go my arm.
“Thanks,” Garrett says. He smirks at me and flips the rock back into the koi pond. Mr. Reese turns on Brandon and Mark.
“No more of that,” he barks. “We’re not here to play games.”
“I thought she’d be able to do it,” Brandon insists, but he hangs his head. “Sorry, Nalena.”
“I’m okay,” I say, although half of me is angry that I couldn’t do it, and the other half is wondering how okay I really am with Brandon taking the chance on busting my head open.
“Your problem is focus,” Mr. Reese says. “You can never allow fear to take over. The number one rule is that you can never bring fear to a fight.”
“Or you’ll instantly fail,” I repeat what I’ve heard before. From my peripheral, I see Garrett grin.
“Exactly.” Mr. Reese nods. “One way to block the fear is to use a mantra. Choose a word that floods you with peace when you think it. It can be anything you want. Mine is sand.”
“Mine’s seashell,” Mrs. Reese pipes up from the gazebo.
“Addo,” Brandon says.
Garrett smiles. “Moon.”
“Shoelaces,” Mark says. We all turn and look at him but no one says a word. He shrugs and looks down at his sneakers. “What? When they’re tied, I’m at peace.”
“What is yours, Sean?” I ask. Sean is sitting on his hands.
“I don’t need one,” he says with a flat grin. “I’m not Contego. But I guess if I had to pick something, I’d use a logarithm.”
Everyone turns away from Mark and focuses on Sean, just as speechless. He shrugs.
“Or clouds,” he adds.
“Anyway,” Mr. Reese calls us back to attention. “Choose a word that makes you feel calm. Do you have a word like that?”
I think hard for a moment and nod.
“I have it,” I say.
“Well, what is it?” Brandon asks.
Mrs. Reese awws from the gazebo.
“Suck up,” Brandon chides and Mark starts parroting me in a ridiculous, girly voice.
“Shut up,” Garrett says, taking a step toward them. The two younger Reeses drop into defensive stances, and even though I can’t see them, I am sure their fields are churning around them. Garrett has scared their fields up. I can't help but laugh.
Mr. Reese sighs.
“Enough,” he announces, rubbing his eyes with one hand. “Mark, Brandon...you two go. Walk the perimeter. In opposite directions.”
The two boys groan but don’t argue. Mrs. Reese gets to her feet.
“I’m going to go get Iris ready for bed,” she says. “And we still need the kitchen cleaned up. You want to give me a hand, Sean?”
“Sure,” Sean says.
“I don’t want to go to bed!” Iris protests, but she stands up from the edge of the pond and comes to the gazebo steps to meet her mother.
“Are you coming, Evangeline?” Mrs. Reese pauses as she takes Iris’s hand. “Nalena is fine and the house will be fairly quiet, if you want to write.”
My mom nods. She walks out of the gazebo and touches my shoulder as she passes me.
“I’m proud of you,” she says, and the smile on her face makes my heart shine.
We keep going, with Mr. Reese giving me pointers as Garrett throws stuff at me, but after only a half hour, I’m so drained that I’m pretty sure my field couldn’t even deflect gnats. We’re only using pebbles, since they sting enough to register as a threat, but won’t inflict the damage that Brandon’s rock would do. Still, I over-think it every time and end up getting bombed with the sharp little stones.
“I’m sorry,” I apologize to Mr. Reese for the third time, grimacing as I rub the spot where the last pebble has bounced off my leg.
“You’re doing fine, Nalena. No one masters their field in a night,” he says. “It takes practice to override your mind and allow your instincts to take over. It’s a leap of faith. Once you get that, we’ll teach you to focus so you can see other people’s fields and how to project your energy if you need to protect yourself. There’s a great deal to training, so don’t be in a rush. It's better to hone your skills, rather than just to know how to use them, even if you don’t become one of the Contego. But for now, I think we should call it a night and let you get some rest.”
“It’s okay. I can keep going.” I try to make my voice strong. I really don’t want to be the wimpy girl that can’t fend off a friggin’ pebble. I want to be the girl that gets it the first time. Or, at least, within the first twenty times. I want Garrett to see me as the girl that masters it the first night.
Instead, Garrett chucks a tiny rock at me and it pings off my cast.
“Forget it, Grasshopper,” Garrett laughs. “You’re not even shielding yourself anymore.”
“He’s right.” Mr. Reese pats my shoulder. “Besides, it’s getting dark.”
The way he says it reminds me of why we’re out here to begin with. An uncontrolled shiver whistles up my spine. When I was little, my mom would call me in at dusk, saying she didn’t want me to be out when the Bogeyman came looking for children to take home. It never crossed my mind that she actually knew his name. And as scared as I used to be, I’m even more terrified of him now.
Garrett gives me a shoulder bump, but I take a step away.
“Figured it out, didn’t you?” he says with a grin.
Mr. Reese walks ahead, ignoring us. He slips into the house while we are still only half way across the yard. I stop walking and face Garrett.
“Figured what out?” I ask.
“That choosing a simple life isn’t going to be so simple.”
I would be offended, except that he almost sounds sorry that I can’t just run away from it now. It’s confusing, since he was so upset after leaving the Addo’s house.
“It’s the only way I can keep my mom safe,” I say, and for the reasons I don’t want to call by name, I shut my mouth. I know what I have to do. I just don’t know how I am going to do it without my mom finding out first.
“If that’s your only reason for choosing it, you shouldn’t,” he says. “Your mom will be fine. We’re all here for that. And if you’re worried about your dad, you don’t need to be. The Alo aren’t fighters. About the only physical thing they’re good at is running and sooner or later, we still catch them. There’s no way he can make it through one of the Contego, let alone five.”
“Five. Because Sean’s not Contego,” I say, switching subjects as smoothly as I can. I don’t want to think of my father, even if it is with assurances that he won’t get near my mom. “How come you’re not bugging him about picking a Simple Life?”
“Because he didn’t choose it,” Garrett says. He cracks his knuckles and puts one hand in his pocket. The other he leaves dangling close to me. “Sean was never given the sign. Not every kid born into a Contego or an Alo family receives it. I think it was tough on him at first, being the oldest and the only one of us boys that didn’t get a shot at it. There’s nothing dishonorable about living a Simple life, but I still think he felt shut out a lot in the beginning.”
“It was hard on all of us. At one point, Sean began building up a grudge and my parents worried he’d end up turning away from us all together. Maybe fall into The Fury. But it passed. Sean’s a vital part of the family and he knows it.”
My ears perk at The Fury.
“I thought you said Sean didn’t have any choices.”
“Anyone could end up in The Fury,” Garrett says. “It’s an alternative to any destiny.”
“Where do those people live?”
“Everywhere.” He scans the lot line as he speaks to me. “The communities aren’t as much about physical location, as they are about how we come together. The Fury community structure is really loose. See, when you’re one of them, no one and nothing else matters. Gathering isn’t a priority, unless there is something in it for personal gain. The Fury…they’re more like a category than a community.”
“So they’re faking it? 'The Fury' doesn't sound like people that fake it,” I say. Garrett glances back at me long enough to crack a smile and shake his head.
“The Fury would be a threat if they were a strong community, but they're not. They have no concept of working together for an ultimate goal or a greater good. Even if they did, they all want to be the leader and end up just fighting among themselves over that. That’s why they’ve never been much of a threat in the past. They’re too busy fighting over who’s the boss to ever organize.” He glances back at me. This time his eyes are sharp as blue diamonds, as if they are trying to cut through his words and say even more than what is coming out of his mouth. He holds his gaze on me a moment and then it is gone again, skimming the perimeter of the yard. “Luckily, all that self involvement makes organizing any decent plans nearly impossible. The longer a person is in The Fury, the more selfish and self-concerned they become. They don’t care about plans. Eventually, they become so centered on themselves that they go insane. Still, every now and again, one of them will pop up and throw a wrench into things, but so far, they’ve always been pretty easy to shut down.”
“I’m selfish all the time.” A sudden surge of guilt coagulates the warmth that Garrett’s smile had generated in my stomach. “A couple days ago, I used up all the shampoo and didn’t replace the bottle, even though I knew my mom was getting in the shower after me.”
“Yeah, you’re rotten.” Garrett chuckles. “Look, we all do selfish things. Every day. It’s human. The difference between a normal person and someone in The Fury is all about how habitual they are.”
“How can you tell who they are?”
“That can be tricky. The Fury are criminals. They’re thieves, they can be abusive, they destroy whatever gets in the way of them getting what they want. A lot of them wreck their bodies by gorging on their desires. It deforms them.”
“But how do they keep going?”
“They constantly search for new members and they feed on one another. They’re always looking for new financial resources, new relationships, and anyone who is still willing to put others before themselves. The Fury are master manipulators. They see themselves as victims of life, like it owes them, instead of the other way around.”
I gulp, thinking of my father. I wonder if he is deformed beneath his ski mask. Garrett steps closer, disregarding the whole thing with one soothing laugh. “But my parents never had to worry as far as Sean’s concerned. He’s a brainiac and he definitely knows what’s what. Guy’s got some serious amps upstairs.”
“I can see why your mom and dad would be scared of Sean getting into that,” I say, my thoughts spinning a hundred miles away from Sean and his brains. “Especially if there’s no chance of escaping it.”
“There’s always a chance,” Garrett says.
“Why do they stay in The Fury then? If it gets so bad?”
“Well,” he begins reluctantly. “There is a trap to it. After a while, a person in The Fury withdraws totally from loving or caring for anyone else. Once that happens, it doesn't take long before they decide they can’t trust that anyone loves or cares for them either. Reaching out to one another is the same as working a see-saw, but jumping off is like diving straight into a void.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. Garrett rolls his tongue against a cheek and looks away like he doesn’t want to say. He rubs the base of his neck.
“Spiritual isolation is hell. It's not a physical place. It's complete separation from everyone else. Total loneliness. At that point, unless a person can reach back out and find use for relationships again, they go insane.”
A sadness I don’t want to feel for my father roots itself in my stomach. I watch the tops of the trees, swaying in the breeze.
“Not reaching out is a choice too,” Garrett reminds me, nudging my shoulder with his. I nod and give him a grin, but we walk back to the French doors in silence.
We let ourselves into the usual chaos of Garrett’s house. Brandon is playing Hacky Sack in the living room, counting out loud while Iris tries to grab it in mid air. Sean and Mr. Reese are debating the validity of Biblical translations from original Hebrew. The phone rings. Mr. Reese shouts for Mark to check caller ID.
“It’s local!” Mark shouts as he races to pick up the phone. In his goofiest voice, he says, “Reeses! Who you wanna talk to?”
As Garrett and I enter the kitchen, Mark holds out the receiver to Garrett.
“It’s another giiiiiiirl,” Mark says, batting his eyelashes.
Garrett grabs the phone and gives Mark a half-hearted kick as he says, “Hello?” and then in a dull tone, “Oh, hey Jen.”
I walk past him and lean on the counter, pretending not to be hanging on every word of his phone call. Mrs. Reese is dunking a tea bag and I zone-in on what she’s doing like it’s the most fascinating thing on Earth. When she sees me watching, she gives me an awkward smile that says tea is not this exciting. She glances at Garrett and then winks at me as she takes her mug into the living room, which leaves me with absolutely nothing to stare at.
I hop my gaze all over the dining room in search of anything, besides the wall where Garrett is having his conversation with my archenemy. I look at the chairs tucked around the table, the weird collage of broken dishes mounted on the wall, and I still manage to run right smack into Garrett’s eyes, which are staring directly at me. Before I can skitter away, he makes a goofy face. The kind I’d make over a bowl of boiled okra. Or over a conversation with a cheerleader I can’t stand. His grin makes me hold myself down inside, anchoring my legs from spinning around the room on tip toes. Whether or not Garrett is into me, at least I know he is way less into Jen.
“I’m not really the one you need to apologize to,” he says. He sweeps back his hair and stuffs a finger in his ear to block out the mounting argument going on between Iris and Brandon. Iris comes tearing into the dining room, gripping Brandon’s Hacky Sack as she yanks out a chair and dives under the table. I try to keep tabs on Garrett’s conversation while feigning interest in Brandon trying to swipe back the bean bag from his sister. “Yeah, okay. You’ll talk to her? Mmm hmm…Last senior party, huh?...I’ll have to see...oh yeah?”
I glance again at Garrett and his eyes are still on me. Thinking all my bad thoughts of Jen seems pretty petty since I’m the one who’s here, seeing him wink at me. I look away, but my cheeks prickle like needles in a voodoo doll.
“Huh, okay...” Garrett finally says into the receiver. “Okay, I’ll find out...mmm hmm...okay, yeah, see ya.”
Brandon wrestles the toy away from Iris and she comes out from beneath the table, howling. Mrs. Reese shouts from downstairs that everyone should be playing nice. I try to puzzle-piece the conversation together as Garrett hangs up. It’s against the universal, we’re-just-friends rule for me to even ask what Jen wanted, so I am totally relieved when he tells me anyway.
“Jen called to apologize for what’s happened. She said she’s going to call your house and talk to you. I guess she doesn’t know you’re staying here,” he says. I wonder if the way his lips curl down at the edge means he wants her to know. Flutter. “And she wants us to come to her party.”
“Us?” I feel myself gaping. I actually have to concentrate on shutting my mouth.
“Well, she invited me, and she said I could bring a friend. And she knows we’re friends, right?”
“No way.” I make a sound that sounds exactly like I’m trying to blow a kernel of corn out of my nostril. My cheeks instantly flame again. “I mean, yeah, we’re friends, but you know Jen totally doesn’t mean me.”
“I think she’s just trying to make peace, but,” he shrugs, “I’m not sure I’d even want to go.”
Not sure? How can he not be sure? Didn’t he see Cora’s video? What I want him to say is that he’d rather eat nails. Finger paint himself with battery acid. Or that there is no way he’d go without me because he can’t stand to be away from me that long.
Brandon and Mark start a vicious argument in the living room.
“It’s over!” Brandon hoots. “It hit your arm! That was sooo your arm!”
“You’re nuts,” Mark shouts back. “You just don’t want to fork over your allowance.”
“What did we say about betting, boys?” Mr. Reese booms over the top of them both. Garrett turns to me.
“Want to go hang out in my room?” he asks, one eyebrow quizzing me. As if I could pronounce ‘no’ when he looks at me. Still, I try to make it sound like it’s no big deal but I’m already thinking of his soft, reclining chair and the concentrated scent of his cologne that makes me feel like his arms are around me.
“Sure.” I follow him downstairs. Mrs. Reese is reading a book on one couch and my mom is sitting on the other, hunched over, writing. Neither of them look up as we pass.
I notice the pile of paper, neatly arranged against the far wall, beneath the windows. I can’t help but shudder at the sight of it. The dead, stacked in sheets and starting to fill up the Reeses’ lively space. I wonder if the human race could eventually be snuffed out, not by nuclear bombs, but by the overcrowding of the dead. The entire Earth, nothing but one big storage garage for all of us. I shiver again.
“You cold?” Garrett asks as we go down the hall.
“No,” I say and he nods like he understands anyway.
“Long day,” he says as we enter his room. He leaves the door open. The recognition of how long a day it’s been, mixed up with the concentrated scent of his cologne, makes me feel tired and dizzy at once. I stand in the doorway like an awkward totem pole, until Garrett pats the bed for me to sit. He slides into the chair himself. I hobble in and take a seat, sinking into his mattress. The scent of him wafts up from the comforter and I inhale so deeply, it feels like stealing.
“Music?” he asks, and I nod, unwilling to open my mouth and miss one dizzying breath. He turns on his old stereo and the music hums from the speakers. “I’ll go grab us something to drink. I’ll be right back, okay?”
I nod again and he goes. I hear him pad down the hall. I push down on the comforter to send another wisp of his scent into the air. It’s like a drug. My whole body relaxes and my head feels too heavy to stay upright. I listen for Garrett to return, but when he doesn’t, I slump down on my elbows, closer to the comforter. It seems like hours are going by, even though looking at his alarm clock, I see it’s hardly even minutes. I let myself sink down into the soft trench, the comforter puffing up around me, trapping my body heat. I yawn.
That’s the last thing I remember.
Waking up on Garrett Reese’s bed is like waking up in the middle of a deserted carnival. I shoot straight up, knowing I have no idea where I am for exactly three seconds, and then I remember and I’m happy, but then I panic because I know I shouldn’t be here. I thump around, half expecting and mostly hoping to find Garrett beside me, but the bed is empty. There’s only me, wound up in a wad of comforter and sheets that belong to the most handsome, best-smelling boy…who is also nowhere to be seen.
Everything is quiet until I stumble down the hall and hear the rest of the house, banging cereal bowls and popping the toaster. Everyone is wide awake. There is a cold panic right in the center of my chest, pressing down hard on my lungs, as I feel the humiliation of emerging from Garrett’s room. I mean, I’m not a girl that does that. Especially in a house full of both our families.
My mom is still at work, in the same place on the couch that I left her last night. She’s hunched over a five inch stack of paper. Garrett is sleeping on the love seat opposite from her. He’s on his back, his feet dangling over the arm. My mom doesn’t look up when I drift to the edge of her couch, but when I reach out and rub her shoulders, she groans with gratitude.
“Thank you,” she says. “You can’t imagine how much I needed that.”
Instead of talking, I keep rubbing and let myself sneak another look at Garrett. I’m hypnotized by the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest that seems to keep time with the scratch of my mom’s pen on the paper. His hair has dropped back from his face. My eyes slide over his profile. His nose is so smooth and straight that my fingertips tingle with the urge to touch it. I stand there, floating in the idea of what it would feel like, both on my skin and in my heart, to be able to trace the bridge of his nose whenever I wanted.
“Garrett said you fell asleep pretty hard, huh?” my mom asks. Even his name scrambles my breathing a little.
“Yeah. I guess so.” I knead her left shoulder with my free hand so it doesn’t interrupt her writing.
“He said he couldn’t wake you up,” she says. I think of him standing over me, watching me sleep, and I feel a spark of excitement followed with a pang of anxiety. I hope I wasn’t drooling on his comforter. She grins dryly in his direction before resuming her writing. “I think it was very kind of him to let you have his bed, considering he had to sleep on that love seat.”
I listen to the scratch of her pen on the paper. I know she worries about how much I like him, but by the way she lets the grin stay on her face as she writes, I think she’s having a hard time not liking him herself.
Garrett is up and showered by the time I finish breakfast. Mr. Reese takes Brandon and Mark off to the gym with him, and Mrs. Reese herds Iris out the door to ballet class, despite all Iris’s pleading to stay with ‘Evanchline’.
I’m at the table, clinking the palm of my cast against my empty tea mug, when Garrett comes upstairs. Slicked back from his face, his damp hair appears even darker than usual, and his eyes are so purely blue, I imagine they would be the exact color of a waterfall in the middle of Eden. It makes me forget that I’m still kind of tired, that I should be sleeping in because it is Saturday, that Jen called yesterday, that I slept in his bed, that I need to go back to the Addo’s today, that the world is falling down, that I made a Simple choice and still didn’t, that I am the daughter of a murderer.
“What’s on your mind?” Garrett asks as he pulls out a box of granola. He dumps some into two bowls and roots around in the fridge for the milk.
“We’re going to the Addo’s, right?”
“Yeah.” Garrett splashes milk on the cereal and puts the gallon back. “I can take you as soon as we eat. Have some.”
He leaves one bowl near my elbow before he grabs us each a spoon and takes a seat across from me. Instead of putting the spoon in my bowl, I lay a finger on the rounded part and push it against the table, lifting the handle. Garrett swallows a mouthful, watching me.
“So what are you going to tell him?” He looks away when he asks, as if he shouldn’t be asking at all. But what I’m going to tell the Addo isn’t personal to me. I let go of the spoon and the handle clinks against the table. I glance back at the stairs and lower my voice.
“I’m going to say I need to protect my mom.”
“You most certainly are not.” My mom’s voice startles me as she materializes from the family room downstairs. I drop my forehead into my palm and look across the table to Garrett. He’s just casually chewing his granola, unaware or maybe genuinely unconcerned, that he’s about to see my mom combust. “You don’t need to have this kind of a life.”
She sits at the head of the table, pushing my bowl of granola squarely in front of me. Garrett puts another spoonful of cereal in his mouth, like he’s watching a game show.
“That was before I knew about Roger,” I tell her.
“He’ll leave us alone if you stay out of the community.”
“And what if he doesn’t?” I ask. “What about the others?”
“She means The Fury, Alo Evangeline,” Garrett says.
“What about them? The Fury can’t organize enough to agree on which liquor to get drunk on, let alone create a significant problem for the Ianua,” my mother tells him. She turns to me, her eyes pleading. “Roger’s the only one we have to worry about, Nalena, and if you’re not part of the Ianua, he’s got no reason to bother us.”
“He bothered to break her arm, Alo Evangeline,” Garrett corrects her quietly. “Before he even knew for sure that she had the sign. Just like we were discussing the other night...”
“What we were discussing the other night is an old wives tale, Garrett,” my mother cuts him off.
“What are you talking about?” I ask. My voice is suddenly a wild thing, beating in my throat. “What were you discussing?”
“An outdated conspiracy theory,” my mom says. She purses her lips at Garrett and crosses her arms over her chest. “Just a theory, nothing more.”
“It’s not just a theory anymore. We can’t ignore the facts. Things are happening,” Garrett says. “If I hadn’t gotten the emergency call to watch over the Addo, Nalena would never have been jumped in the bathroom at school.”
“You were called in as a precaution! Nothing happened,” my mother argues. “This is not a reason for her to base a decision on.”
“She wants to protect you.” Garrett’s voice drops an octave.
"She is my daughter, Garrett!" She stabs her chest with her finger. "And it is my job to protect her. Not the other way around."
“She should have the right to choose. She was given the warrior sign for a reason. Their numbers have been growing, and look at how close they’ve gotten. Roger never should have been able to lay a finger on Nalena. He said himself that he’s got inside contacts. I don’t think you can argue that the conspiracy theory we’ve suspected might not be a theory anymore.”
“You give me the name of someone in our community that they’ve killed.” My mom taps a finger on the table. She said killed. I can’t even catch my breath to ask if I heard it right before Garrett answers her.
“Chloe Henderson,” he says.
“That was a car accident. They...”
“You think The Fury orchestrated an entire plane crash, just to get rid of Nick? There were 33 other passengers killed...”
“Patty Rickenback, electrocuted in her bathtub.”
“Patty was ancient and she probably wasn’t thinking straight. She took a bath and the radio was too close to the tub.”
“Debbie Harris, poisoned.”
“She used to be an alcoholic. She relapsed and drank the wrong concoction.”
“Everyone’s saying the deaths are part of a plan, just like the one with Elaina and Steven Mulshevitz, but on a much bigger scale,” Garrett says. “Prey on the weak, make it all look like accidents, and slowly whittle down the opposition.”
“Who? Who’s saying?” my mom snaps. “Because it was not The Fury that killed the Mulshevitz’s, Garrett.” Her laugh is hacked flat at the end. “That was almost eighteen years ago, and even though you’re too young to have known Elaina and Steven, I did. They weren’t murdered and there wasn’t any plan. I knew them for goodness sake! They had a terrible marriage and Elaina was cheating on Steven. When he found out that his son wasn’t his, he shot her and then he shot himself. The Fury had nothing to do with it.”
“I thought you said The Fury wasn’t really a threat,” I say to Garrett. Or maybe I just squeak. That’s what it feels like.
“In the distant past they weren’t, but in the past 18 years, the rate of ‘accidental’ deaths has climbed and the accidents keep getting more and more bizarre. There have been five ‘accidental’ Ianua deaths in the last five months, the highest number yet,” Garrett says. “They’re preying on the Alo.”
“It’s coincidence, Nalena, that’s all.” My mother takes a seat beside me, curling her fingers around my chin so I will look at her. “When people die unexpectedly, sometimes it is easier to explain the senselessness if there is a scandal. These deaths are tragedies, not conspiracies. Don’t make your choice based on this. I don’t need protecting.”
I drop against the back of the chair.
“It’s a lot of people to die tragically within five months. It could be some huge coincidence, but what if it’s not? How many Alo are there?” I ask.
“Only the Addos know for sure,” Garrett says.
“There are hundreds of Alo,” my mom says. “Maybe thousands.”
“There’s more than one Addo?” I ask. Garrett nods.
“There were thirteen,” he says. “Until one passed away last month.”
“Addo Chad,” my mother says. “God bless him, he passed in his sleep.”
“At the ripe age of 41,” Garrett adds. “Without any prior health issues. The autopsy pointed to a suspicious cause of death.”
“The autopsy was inconclusive,” my mom says, smoothing down her shirt. The way she does it, I know she feels she’s lost the battle. She glances up at the clock. “You should get going, the Addo will be waiting for you. Just remember, Nalena, you’ve got nothing to worry about, besides making the right choice.
I know she’s right.
“I didn’t mean to scare you, but I thought you should know everything before you make your decision,” Garrett says when we’re in the car and on the way to the Addo’s.
“You’re not scaring me,” I lie. After listening to he and my mom go at it in the kitchen, I’m not sure either one of them knows what the truth really is. It seems like they both have suspicions, but neither of them can prove any of it. All I know is that my mom wants me to have a Simple Life and that having it still seems the best option to keep us both safe.
“Do you know what you are going to do?” Garrett asks.
“Yeah,” I tell him. “I’m going to do what my mom wants and keep my father away from us.”
Garrett runs the car off on the gravel shoulder and turns to me. “Are you serious?”
“You said you’re going to keep my mom safe,” I tell him even though it doesn’t feel right, even saying it out loud. “And I’ll be able to protect myself. Roger won’t bother us as long as I stay out of the community.”
“Did you get that in writing?” He is so sarcastic that suddenly, no matter how beautiful Garrett Reese is, it’s still not worth taking this from him.
“Look,” I say, mirroring his sarcasm. “What do you care anyway? Your job is to take care of my mom. I appreciate that you’ve been nice to me because I’m related, but I’m just going to put it out there: you’re off the hook. I’m going to be out of your hair after I talk to the Addo, okay? So, you can go back to doing your job and I’ll get on with my life.”
“My job?” Garrett’s whole face puckers up as he says it. “You think I’m nice to you because I...”
I don’t let him finish. I stick my Ipod buds in my ears and crank up my volume until it drowns him out. My ears thump with bass. We don’t speak another word on the way to the Addo’s house. It’s not like Garrett doesn’t try, but I keep the buds in my ears. Garrett grabs the cords and pops them out once, but I just stuff them right back in. After that, he leaves me alone.
When we pull up in front of the Addo’s trailer, Garrett motions to a woman in a silver car who pulls out of the space that we pull into. I wonder briefly how many new Contego and Alo show up in a day. My mom is probably right about there being thousands.
I hop out of the car and walk up the twitchy front steps without bothering to wait for Garrett. It doesn’t matter. He hasn’t even gotten out of the car.
I knock three times before the Addo finally comes to open the door. He’s wearing navy blue sweats today, the pants pulled up over the white knee socks again, and the same sandals.
“It’s always open, you know,” he says. “I’ll have to start wearing my pedometer if you’re going to make me walk to the door every time you show up. I suppose my doctor will be thrilled.”
I step into the artificial sun of his enormous kitchen-house. “Shouldn’t you keep it locked?”
“For what purpose? To keep the world out? Fah on that, Nalena. The world gets in whenever it wants to anyway, doesn’t it? What’s the point in wearing out a perfectly useless lock?” He works his way around his gigantic table, to a cupboard, and takes out two cups. He pours hot water from a kettle on the stove and drops in tea balls.
“You can close that door, my dear,” he says. “Garrett’s not coming in. He’s going to sit out there and sulk. He could do his surveillance in here just as well, but he’d rather sit out there and pout about something that isn’t even going to happen. Oh well. Too bad for him. And now he’s going to miss out on the cookies too.”
“Surveillance?” I ask. “For what? The Fury?”
“Probably,” Addo says. “Maybe. Definitely. I say, let everyone feel as though they’re doing something useful if that’s what puts them at ease. At the very least, it keeps them out of my hair.”
The Addo takes a plate down from on top of the fridge. There are only three cookies on it.
“There would be more, but I was terribly hungry,” he apologizes as he lays the plate in front of me, along with the mug of tea. The smell of the tea, as pungent as a forest, catches in my nose and relaxes me a little. “Cookies are my weakness.”
“Addo,” I begin carefully because I’m not sure what question I need to ask in order to get the answer I want. “Is someone trying to...”
“Snuff me?” he giggles, taking the seat beside me. “Oh yes. Probably. Actually, probably most certainly. But maybe not who you think.”
“Who I think?”
“Oops. Did I get it wrong?” Addo raises an eyebrow and suddenly, in the back of my head, I hear the Addo’s voice, small but clear, as he says: Roger, right-o?
“Holy crap,” I gasp. I put my hands over my ears.
“The holiest kind.” Addo laughs.
“How did you do that?”
“It’s amazing what we can do when we recognize our connection to one another.”
“You mean you can read my mind?”
“Wouldn’t that be a hoot?” Addo slaps his knee. “No, my dear, your thoughts are your own unless you choose to share them. And sharing takes some projecting on your part. Thank goodness for that, right? However, common sense and body language are terrible little traitors.”
“Is my father one of them?” I ask.
“The Furis?” Addo chuckles. “That was the name they were originally given, you know. Did anyone tell you what it means?”
I shake my head as Addo pulls the sugar bowl over. He spoons heaps into his mug.
“It means thieves, among other things. And yes, Roger has always dabbled among them. He resisted longer than most, but I’m afraid his instincts have finally been dulled. He doesn’t seem to have any more ‘go’ left in him.”
“He’s insane?” I ask.
“I’m afraid he may be.” The Addo’s eyes drop mournfully.
“I don’t really want to talk about him.”
“Then let’s not,” Addo says, tinking his tea spoon on the side of his mug. “Do you know that when the Furis figured out their name, they actually rallied themselves enough to agree on calling themselves The Fury?” He throws down his spoon and wiggles his fingers in the air. “Wooo...The Fury!”
He swats the sound away and drops his hands in his lap with a laugh.
“Bah,” he says. “Somebody thought that sounded scarier, I bet. You see what happens when a community is shaped in the hands of morons?” He picks up his spoon again, chuckling to himself as he dumps the fifth spoonful of sugar into his cup. He leans back in his chair, stirring lazily.
“Are they all evil?” I ask. Addo grunts a laugh.
“Nah. They haven’t got the focus it takes to be evil,” he says. “I think they’d love to be considered the bad guys, the lowbrows...even the people who graffiti on old ladies’ cars. But they haven’t got that kind of determination. The Fury are more like fish riding a Ferris wheel. They go round and round, suffocating, without a clue that they don’t belong there. And no matter how uncomfortable they get, they still want another ride. All they do is want, want, want.” He motions to the plate of cookies. “Are you going to eat those? Mmm, mmm. Just the right amount of chocolate chips. They’re awfully good.”
He looks at my hand, gripping my tea cup, then at the plate, and then my face, as if there is something wrong with me for not scooping up a cookie. After he just referred to the people that want to kill him as fish on Ferris wheels. However, Addo seems completely at ease, aside from only having eyes for the plate of cookies in front of me.
“Seriously,” he says. “They’re spectacular.”
“No, you go right ahead. I’m not hungry.” I give the plate a little push toward him but he shakes his head and pushes the plate back to me as if he insists. I ignore it.
“Is that why you don’t seem worried about the threats from The Fury? Because they’re too self absorbed to be a real problem?”
“Oh no, my dear.” He sips his tea. “I don’t worry, only because it’s useless. But The Fury, they mean to be quite a huge problem. They’ve been at it for a while and they may have actually come up with something substantial this time.”
“What do they want?”
“It’s funny. This time, the hullaballoo is all about what they don’t want. They don’t want spiritual evolution. They don’t want anything less than 100% freedom. In other words: nothing. Lives totally devoid of responsibility. They also insist on having zip for consequences and they’re all for instituting a big goose egg for knowledge too.” He swallows and leans forward, his face close to mine, as if closeness equals clarity. I smell the chocolate on his breath. “With those dopes in the captain’s chair, every one of our lives would be a singular event. No one would be responsible for anybody else. No one would get one iota smarter than what they manage to scrape together in their own lifetime. Human evolution...and I’m not talking monkeys here, but our spiritual humanity, what we’re really all here for...would come to a screeching halt. We’d never reach our full potential. The Fury, if they grew large enough, could destroy the human race and everything humans have worked to achieve from the beginning of time. At a breakneck speed too.”
“What are we trying to achieve?”
Addo shrugs like everyone knows the secret to life on Earth. “Knowledge. Love. If you got those, then you got the whole enchilada—peace, understanding, growth, unicorns and rainbows. All that. Uh, duh.”
I just blink at him. He smiles and I see a cookie chunk stuck between his teeth.
“My mom told me what my father did. To her and to my grandfather. You said you knew him. Can you tell me what he was like? I mean, before he was one of them?”
“Hmm,” he hums. “ I can.” He finally snags a cookie. “I’m just going to have one of these, if you’re not.”
“Sure,” I say. I watch him close his eyes as he chews, his eyebrows arcing blissfully.
“Oh, these are good. Really, really, good,” he says. When he opens his eyes and sees that I’m still here, he salutes me with what’s left of his cookie. “Well, okay. Let’s see...Roger.” He takes a bite and the crumbs rain down on the front of his sweatshirt. He licks his finger and dots them up before sliding a second cookie off the plate.
“He was in Addo Chad’s branch of the Ianua, so I didn’t actually meet Roger until he’d asked for your mother’s hand in marriage. He was tall, thin, knew how to look a person in the eye. He had a great handshake. He was always an extremely passionate young man - crazy about your mother, crazy about starting a family. In fact, it’s because of him that I’ll never forget how your conception was announced. The minute your dad found out Evangeline was pregnant, he arranged for the high school marching band to parade down your grandfather’s street. He was out in front, waving a banner with the news.”
“What about his parents? Where were they?”
“Gone,” Addo says. “Both of them. They’d turned to The Fury and abandoned Roger when he was only six or seven years old. Roger talked about that all the time, about all the mistakes his folks had made and how he was never going to do that to his own kids. He could talk about it for hours, all the things he was going to do different. Quite ironical.”
“Who raised him?”
“Roger was an only child, just like his father was before him. I never met Roger’s parents, or even your great grandfather, who ended up raising your dad. From what Addo Chad had told me, Alexander was in his late 70’s, and already a medical wreck, when Roger was left on his doorstep. I imagine the disabilities made Alexander’s parenting pretty swiss-cheese-ish, but he did manage to get Roger through his Junior year of high school. However, ten minutes after Alexander passed, Roger ditched the rest of his education. He’d received the sign of the Alo, had met your mother, and was eager to start his family. Addo Chad had worried that Roger was more enamored with the community’s financial support of the Alo, than he was with fulfilling the responsibilities of the Alo. Still, Roger went through with the Impressioning. So, it seems that Roger’s choices, which he usually made in order to avoid all the rough little rides in life, are the exact same ones that eventually landed him right on the back of a bucking bronco. There’s a lesson to be learned in that.” The Addo leans back in his chair, finishing his second cookie, as if he’s pondering the lesson himself.
“Do you think I could talk to Addo Chad?”
“Doubtful.” Addo shakes his head gravely. “He passed away last month.”
“Oh,” I say. Addo shrugs as if these things happen, but a moment of silence rises up between us, with the Addo chuffing a smile, like he is revisiting memories. He scratches something off the table with his fingernail and looks back at me.
“What else did you want to know?”
I have no idea. “My father...he was pretty lazy?”
“Ugh. Is that all you heard?” he asks. I shrug and nod at the same time, confused. Isn’t that what he was trying to tell me? My father is a slug? Always has been? Addo shakes his head as if he can hear my thoughts after all. “There are always two ways of looking at any one thing, Kiddo. You could definitely say that Roger was lazy and always looked for the simple way out of everything. And I could say that Roger was a man who had been steeped in failure and was overwhelmed by his fear of it. Now, which of us do you think is right?”
“You, probably,” I mumble, feeling ashamed, but the Addo’s sudden cackle startles me in my seat.
“Wrong!” He slaps his palm with the opposite hand. “We’re both right. You see? Paradigms. Funny little contraptions. They make what we believe...true.” He holds out a hand, pinched together at the fingertips and then spreads them like a blooming flower. “So now, kiddo, it’s up to you to choose what you believe about your father.”
Addo takes a swig of his tea and in the back of my head I hear, Your answers will come to you if you just let them.
I squint. “Please stop doing that.”
“Sorry,” he says, licking the crumbs off his mouth. “My lips were just tired.”
“Well, I guess I should tell you that I made my decision.”
His eyebrows peak with interest. “Oh? Another?”
“Well, no. I already said I was choosing the Simple life. I just wanted to tell you I’m going to stick with that.” I wait for him to say something, but he only folds his hands in his lap. I clear my throat and thrum a finger on the table while we stare at each other. I get so uneasy, I finally stand up. “So, okay. I guess I’ll be going.”
“What’s the big hurry? You’re perfectly safe here, you know. Actually, even safer than me, since you’ve got the abilities of the Contego.”
“You can erase them or whatever you have to do,” I tell him. He seems unconcerned by my admission, so I try to clarify. “It’s just that...I can’t be Contego. I need to choose a Simple life.”
“My mom needs me to have a Simple life. She wants me to...”
“Hmm,” he grunts. “So that’s Evangeline’s decision. Good, good. But you also mentioned that you’d made yours. So what is it that you decided?”
I don’t like him insinuating that I can’t think for myself. I stand straight, my back rigid, and look right down into his eyes as I say, “We don’t want my father coming after us.”
“Hmm,” he grunts again. I can’t tell if he’s grunting about the flavor of the cookie or about what I’ve just told him. “We’re getting closer. Honor thy parents. Definitely. But honor, my dear, that ain’t the stuff you’re using to make this decision, now is it?”
He taps his temple and gives me a shotgun finger with a wink. I take a shaky breath, hearing Garrett repeat in my mind, Never bring fear to a fight. In my head I also tell Garrett to shut up, since this is a decision, not a fight. And it’s anger I’m bringing, not fear. In the back of my head, I hear Addo say, Eh. Same thing.
“Stop doing that,” I tell him, dropping back down on my chair.
“Sorry,” he says, picking up and extending the dessert plate. “Cookie?”
“Go on and just have it.” I tell him.
“No, no, no. That wouldn’t be hospitable at all.” He sets down the plate but continues to eye the last cookie between sentences. “So, what else is there? Aside from your parents. Who are you exactly? Is all of you Contego or just part of you?”
“Why don’t you just read my tea and let me know?” I say, frustrated. Addo just laughs, finally slipping the last cookie off the plate.
“Now what fun is that?” he asks. “Tell me yourself.”
“I don’t know!” I say, gripping my head in my hands. Addo tsks gently.
“Of course you do,” he says. “You’re the only one that knows.”
He is quiet then, except for his open-mouthed crunching. I can’t help but be annoyed. It’s only my destiny at stake, after all.
“Could you stop chewing and help me?”
“How would it help you for both of us to be unhappy?” he asks. Cookie crumbs spray from his mouth. I sigh, and throw up my arms. How can he be a wise man? I don’t know the answer he wants. I search my brain for every reason I would want to be a warrior, the same way I rifle my pockets when I’ve lost money. I dump every idea into a heap and sort through them, sure that one has to be the thing I’m really looking for.
“I want to be with Garrett,” I say. “We have to be Contego if we want to be friends, right?”
It’s a brainless, transparent, weakling-girl kind of an answer. It comes flying out of my mouth and it’s not even the truth. Friendship will never be enough. Still, I wasn’t planning on broadcasting how totally stupid I am about him. I blush and Addo rolls his eyes.
“That’s what you’re going to base your decision on? A boy? Ugh. Dummy.” He shakes his head. “At least we’re getting down to it. So, tell me, what happens if the romance flops?”
“It’s not like that,” I grumble, even though in my head I hear, Oh yes it is, but I can’t figure out if it was my thought or the Addo’s. I pull my face out of the scowl, in case it wasn’t him.
“Love is an honorable thing to base a life upon,” Addo says, swabbing the crumbs off his face with the back of his hand. “But that’s not what you’ve got here, because love is like an amazing Bordeaux, or properly aged Gouda, or pickles. It’s got to have time to ferment on a shelf in a quiet chamber, and then to be proven good, despite itself.” He adds, “What you’ve got right now is more like a cheese stick...with some moonshine and cucumbers. It’s no wonder that all you can do is act loopy. If you want good pickles, my dear, you have to let all those nutty hormones settle down first, so you can actually see what’s floated to the top. Being what it is, what else have you got in your decision-making arsenal?”
I’m glad I don’t have to answer, because the phone rings. Addo stands up and shuffles over to answer it. I give up the idea of arguing how important Garrett’s friendship might be to me as Addo picks up the receiver and holds it to his ear without saying hello. Instead he says cheerfully, “I’m in the middle of counseling, so stop interrupting. Come get me if you have to. Door’s open, like always.” And he hangs up, without waiting for an answer. He grins at me. “No worries. Continue on. That’s just the Furies. They like to prank me and breathe heavy in the phone.”
I’m sure my jaw is hanging open. Positive. The friendship, and the good pickles, and whatever else we were talking about in the last ten seconds, is gone.
“They’re calling you? Threatening you? Aren’t you...” I freeze on the word. I shut my mouth. A wide, proud grin unfurls across the Addo’s face.
“Exactly.” He salutes me with his cup. “Never bring that anywhere worth going.”
“Aren’t you worried though?”
“About them? Nah. You probably don’t know, but the Furies show up every now and then, especially when they’re brains are good and pickled. The Contego usually get them before they even get into the trailer park.”
“What if the Contego didn’t get them?”
“Oh, I know a few things.” Addo winks at me as if he’s just told me a huge secret. I figure it would be rude to ask exactly what it is, so I don’t.
We drink our tea together and I look out the window, into what should be the Addo’s backyard. Instead, it’s a briar patch of overgrown plants that block the view like threads of green thorny curtains. I consider the tangle outside for so long that Addo begins to hum. It pulls me back from my wondering and I feel rude, sitting there ignoring him in his own house.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“For what?” Addo asks. “I was just giving you some background music. No good?”
“Shouldn’t you...I don’t know...move or something? Lock your doors at least?”
“Bah. Don’t worry about them. The Furis can plot and plan all they like. What should be, will be. Besides, it keeps them occupied.” Addo looks at the empty cookie plate and sighs. He runs a hand over his mushroom cap of hair. “Let’s get back to what’s important, shall we? Aside from Evangeline and Prince Charming, what else do you have to base a decision on?”
I turn all the reasons over again in my head and then one falls out like a shiny gum wrapper.
“I want to protect my mom,” I say. It is so easy, so sparklingly simple, that I know it is the right answer. It feels right, as if my whole body relaxes when I say it, and an anchor drops into my shoes. Addo could ask me for another reason, but this is the one I’d have to give him over and over again.
“Yuppity yup yup. That’s the one,” Addo says with a smile.
“I could do that? It’d be my job to just protect my mom?” I ask.
“I’m going to say, yes,” he says. “Some folks might tell you that I’m your first priority, but if that comes up, you tell them that I said, meh. There’s plenty of them to handle what comes my way. If you choose this path, your mother will be your main concern.”
He grins almost as if he’s sad. Maybe he thinks I’m selfish for only worrying about protecting my mom, or maybe he really is sorry to lose out on an extra body guard. I don’t know. But his agreement is what seals it for me.
“Then that’s what I want to do,” I say. “I’d like to be Contego.”
“Noble,” he says with a smile. “I just wish we had more cookies to celebrate.”
“Then you’ll Impression me?”
“Certainly. If that’s your decision.”
“It is.” I nod.
“Tomorrow, then.” He gets right to his feet. “Early. And come with a good spirit.”
I stand and exhale, a wave of unexpected peace rolling through me. Maybe it is just making the decision that does it or maybe it is the feeling that I can finally be sure my mom’s safe. Or it could be that the Addo seems satisfied. I try not to even consider how Garrett will react, even though my body feels light and floaty each time I think of telling him.
I carry my tea cup to the Addo’s sink. The hard petals are in the bottom of my cup again, and I wonder if they were always there and will always stay there. And something else occurs to me.
“Addo? I’ve got one more question.”
“Mmm hmm?” His hum turns up at the end. I think of him looking into my cup yesterday, and how I already made my decision yesterday, and how I made a different one today. I wait until Addo looks into my eyes and then I send my question silently at him, aiming it with a burst, into the depth of his retina.
He flinches, as if something small has flown into his face, but then he giggles.
“No need to use a ramrod, my dear. Now we know you are quite good at projection also. But you are correct, Nalena. There was no other choice for you...” He pauses with a deeper grin.
In my head I hear him say, Except the right one. Duh.
He sweeps his arm in a gentlemanly gesture for me to lead the way to the door. When I reach for the knob to let myself out, Addo’s voice echoes in my head, Good spirit tomorrow, and don’t forget, it’s your turn to bring the cookies.
This time I laugh as I step out onto the wobbly steps.
Garrett’s seat is reclined slightly and he’s looking out the driver’s window as I walk up on the opposite side. His thumb is hooked under his chin and he stops rubbing his upper lip as he watches a car come down the street. He flips the locks when I tap, keeping his thumb on the switch. I slide in, but he doesn’t look at me until the advancing car loops away down a side street. The engine idles, but he doesn’t put the car in drive even after I hook my seatbelt.
“Did you tell him what you wanted?” Garrett asks, his fingers smooth over his lip again as he looks out his window.
“Yeah,” I say. “I need to come back tomorrow. With a good spirit.”
“You chose Contego?”
I’ve got his full attention now. I try to sound like I know what I’m doing when I tell him that he heard right. And then, because the happiness on his face makes me feel like I could tell him anything and he would understand it, I say, “Looks like we can just be friends now.”
“What?” His grin falls abruptly. I feel my own smile falter at the corners as he moves his hand into his hair, pushing it away from his forehead. “You made your decision so we could be friends?”
It’s a little insulting. No, scratch that. It’s heaps and oceans and all-the-way-to-China-and-back insulting. I had expected something so different. That his face would light up, or that he’d congratulate me or hug me or maybe even kiss me. That he’d tell me he wanted more than friendship. Not that he would hold his hair out of his eyes so he can glare at me.
“Vain a little?” I shoot back and I make a pshht sound, as if he’s the stupid one. He doesn’t need to know that my heart just went from soaring to flopping around like a poisoned fish in the bog of my stomach. “It’s not like I’m planning my life based on you. I did it for my mom.”
He lets go of his hair and it drops down like a curtain. He looks straight ahead, over the steering wheel.
“Well, I’m happy for you,” he says, but there is a sharp edge to his tone that makes it hard to tell which one of us he means to be cutting.
What do I say to that? What did he mean if he didn’t mean it the way it sounded? Whatever he means, my decision, even though it still feels solid and right, has just lost all of its sparkle.
A car eases down the street toward us and Garrett puts the car in drive and pulls us smoothly away from the curb. He waves to the other car as it slides into the spot we left behind.
“Who is that?” I ask. It’s a bland enough question. Safe for even an acquaintance to ask.
“The next watch for the Addo,” he says.
“There was a phone call when I was in there,” I say.
“Yeah, the Fury keeps tabs on the Addo’s by calling him,” Garrett explains, but his tone is all business. It makes me lonely. “They’re like fighting against little kids. They call him and then they show up and we haul them away. But we’re still keeping a closer watch since they’ve been popping up so much.”
He drives us down the street, the silence becoming so loud that I think my eardrums are going to turn inside out. It’s nothing compared to the stack of dead moths in my stomach.
“You’re going to have to tell your mom when we get back,” he finally says. “You need to be sure to go to the Addo’s tomorrow with a good spirit.”
I nod, but I wonder just how that’s going to happen now.
I don’t know how to tell my mom, so I just say it. And it comes out fast—like I’m hurking up word vomit. I stand beside her at the Reeses’ dining room table and when I’m done, I’m not sure that she’s caught anything I’ve said. The bottoms of my feet ache. The house is a tomb. It feels even quieter with my mom paused over her paper. Garrett stands a foot or two behind me. As if he’ll step in or catch me, whichever needs to happen. I’m glad he’s there, no matter what he thinks of me. I shift my weight to one foot, then back again. My mom lays her pen down, as if it is to heavy to hold any longer.
“Oh Nalena.” Her voice is small and exhausted. It makes me feel ashamed. I switch feet again. “You didn’t listen to anything I told you, did you?
“I did, Mom...”
“He called again.”
“Roger?” Garrett steps closer. “Did you let my parents know?”
My mom just shakes her head and looks up at me. Her eyes press into mine, erasing everything else in the room, including Garrett. It’s just me and her and the worried crinkle between her eyes. The way it’s always been.
“He knew you were at the Addo’s house again,” she says. “I told him you didn’t want anything to do with the Cusp and that you were going there to choose a Simple life. I think he’s going to leave us alone.”
I try to smile. “Really?”
“I think so.” A smile flutters on her lips. “You see how things work out? You don’t have to worry about protecting me at all.”
“Mom,” I take a breath and spit it all out. “I didn’t tell the Addo I wanted to be Simple.”
“What?” she gasps. I think of all the times I’ve seen her look like she does right now. The profile of it, as she held me up on my bike without the training wheels; the first day of kindergarten, when she stood in the doorway waving good-bye; hovering, a dozen different times, over my bed as my brain pulsed with a headache or my stomach churned or my skin blazed. But the most worried I’ve ever seen her, the worry that left the permanent crease that I can see now under bright lights, was the night that we sat in the emergency room, as she stared at the arm my father broke, cradled in my lap. And I understand now, as much as my mom wants to keep me safe, I want just as badly to keep her safe too. I need it even more than she does. She lived without me before, but I’ve never had to live without her.
“If he’s part of the Fury, or if any of the conspiracy stuff that Garrett was talking about is true, then I still want to be able to protect both of us.”
“A Cusp could mean wars, Nalena.” Her voice quivers as she reaches for my hand. “Death. Things you can’t even believe. It’s not like the movies, where the good guys always win. You don’t know how horrible it can be.”
“I don’t want to be the person that had a chance to stop it all from happening and didn’t,” I tell her. My palm tingles in her grasp. “I want a life that is worth living. I can’t stand on the sidelines and watch everything happen. Especially when you’re in the middle of it.”
“But you’re my daughter. My baby.” She reaches up and pushes strands of hair behind my ear. Her eyes fill and she blinks to hold the tears back. “It’s not your job to protect me. I’m the one who’s supposed to protect you.”
“Please, Mom. If you believe in what you do, then you should believe it’s what I’m supposed to do too. It feels right. It is right. But I need you to be okay with it. Please.”
One tear glazes over the rim of her eye and drops onto her cheek. She doesn’t let go of my hand to wipe it away.
“Okay,” she says. Then, with more finality, “Okay. I’m with you.”
I hear Garrett’s relieved sigh, like a small explosion behind me. It relaxes me and I sigh too. I smile at my mom. We’re all on the same team. It’s going to be okay.
“You’ll need to go to the Addo’s with a good spirit tomorrow,” she says. “And I know just the right one.”