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“What do you mean you know the right one?” I gulp. My mind flips through my rolodex-memory of horror movies. First I think, She can’t mean ghosts, and then I think, Of course she means ghosts. That’s what she does. She writes dead people’s memories. Which makes them spirits. But I never thought she actually talked to them! I shiver like I’m wearing a coat of cobwebs.
My mom does a half-hearted giggle as she wipes her eyes. “You should know her. You picked her yourself.”
“That’s pretty remarkable.” Garrett nods approvingly.
“What are you talking about? I never picked anything!” I say, but Garrett’s gaze is as proud as if I’ve just won a medal. But I know I’ve never picked any one. I’m positive.
“Sure you did,” my mom says. “It wasn’t that long ago either. Grace, 1, saves us all. Remember?”
I do remember. That name, chosen out of the thousands piled up all around me, was completely random. I’d asked my mom a zillion times to finish a story and the last time I’d asked, I’d finally understood that she probably never would. Even so, I kept hoping she’d change her mind. The name and the story stuck in my head like a shadow of that hope. It’s a complete coincidence that I even remember it now.
“I’ve asked you about a ton of names before. Not just that one.”
“They were all possibilities,” my mom says. My jaw is open again, I feel it. My mom, however, crushes her bottom lip against her top one. She used to do this when I had Algebra problems that she couldn’t explain easily. “Souls that have experience in the areas we are working on usually come to help. I believe Grace is still waiting to help you.”
“This is nuts.” I glance at Garrett to verify that my mom is finally out of her tree, but he just tips his head at me with a proud grin. It’s that smile, with his one tooth showing that shouldn’t, that makes me feel surrounded and insulated and safe. And a little nuts.
“I remember feeling like that too,” my mom says. Her expression is part sympathy, but mostly just amused. “Nutty as it might be, this is still part of the Impressioning process. I want an exceptional spirit with you if you’re going to do this, so let’s go meet Grace.”
We walk out to the koi pond. The minute my mom stops walking, Garrett reaches down, scoops up the same rock Brandon heaved at me yesterday, and whips it at me again. Hard. My field blows up around me and this time, I stand away from myself, watching the rock hurtling toward me as if it is happening to someone else. My body reacts, the muscles shifting to pull my bones easily out of harm’s way. My heart is beating like a hammer against a metal pot. It’s a beautiful dance between space and the rock and me, and I keep watching in awe until the rock hits the ground behind me and I am yanked back inside my skin.
“Excellent,” my mom says.
“Impressive.” Garrett congratulates me with a smile.
“Stop throwing stuff at me,” I tell him, but I feel like I’ve got about as much power over my grin as I do over the ripcord of my field.
“Alright, let’s do this,” my mom says. She reaches out and takes my uncasted hand. Our touch stays light in one another’s grasp.
“I’m going to squeeze your hand,” she instructs. “When I do, we are going to be joined, and then I’ll invite Grace to meet you. Just relax and I’ll take care of everything. Here we go...”
I am about to ask what needs to be taken care of, and where this Grace is going to come from, and if she’s going to look like a skeleton or the grim reaper or Casper—but my mom’s hand clamps down on mine. I am locked in place, my body goes rigid as iron. I couldn’t wrench my hand free from my mom’s grip if I wanted to. Our hands meld together like a door hinge, but without the ability to move.
My mom’s thumb pushes against the knuckle of my middle finger and her own middle finger presses against my wrist. Her eyes close and the furrow between them smoothes as if she is having a good dream. Except that it doesn’t look like she’s breathing either. I try to say her name, but my vocal cords aren’t working. I try to shake our locked hands to get her attention, but our hands are too heavy to move. My casted arm is paralyzed at my side. I fight down the fear and remember my mantra. I repeat Mom over and over in my head at warp speed.
I’m about to close my eyes, when something flutters beside my head. It’s a soft, pink petal, transparent as tissue. Then a blue petal catches my eye and when I twist my head to follow it, an emerald petal floats past me. Then a gold. A lilac. Silver. Ebony. Ruby. Peach. The colors are muted and lovely and as I watch them swim past me, my pulse slows to a normal beat. The number of petals increase and they swirl around us in a soft, rhythmic cyclone, until the Reeses’ backyard disappears in their tinted blur. Garrett, smiling, vanishes slowly behind the mosaic of sheer petals too.
I never thought about my mom having a field. It’s nothing like mine. My mom’s field is paper thin, as if the touch of a fingertip could rip it wide open. My body and my spirit stay intact inside her field, but my body is not poised like it is when I’m inside my own field. I am as relaxed as sunshine.
My mom opens her eyes. Whatever expression I’ve got plastered on my face must be good because she smiles.
Ready to meet Grace? she asks, but her words aren’t in my ears. They’re more like thoughts that occur to me, like her ideas dance up softly from my own cells. Her communication is more soothing inside my head than the Addo’s.
Not really. I project my answer back to her, but have no idea whether or not she hears it, until she nods.
You’ll be fine. I’m going to call for Grace now, she tells me wordlessly. Then she closes her eyes again and before I can be frightened of her retreat behind her lids, I hear something that is like music, but isn’t. It’s a note or a deep chord, a sound that happens in layers. It makes me think of the humming of whales. I don’t hear Grace’s name in it at all. I hear a sound so tranquil, I nearly shut my eyes and miss seeing her.
Grace’s face is small and round, and her hair is in three ponytails, one on each side and one on top of her head. She’s so pretty, I catch my breath and am afraid to let it back out, in case it scares her away. Her ponytails are wispy like Iris’s, but her huge, green-gray eyes are like the sun-lit depths of an ocean. She peeks out from behind my mom’s leg. She giggles, the sound of it tickling in my head. She has a perfect little dimple in her right cheek.
I’m getting ready to be born, she says.
I’m getting ready to be... I stop, not knowing what to say exactly. Nothing sounds very impressive next to being born. Does she even know what Contego is? Why would a tiny girl like this care if I am a warrior? How could she be a soul with experience if she hasn’t even been born yet?
As I scramble for how to explain myself to this angelic little girl, with her dimple and her face full of gray-green eyes, my mom speaks instead. Can you help Nalena, Grace? Would you be her Connection?
The little girl steps out from behind my mom’s legs and nods to me with a shy, baby-toothed smile. I can’t help but smile back when I look at her.
What is she going to do? I ask my mom.
Grace rubs her eyes like it is past her nap time. My mother reaches down with her free hand and tucks a wisp of Grace’s hair behind her ear. I feel my mom’s touch tingling behind my own ear too. Grace steps closer to my mom’s leg and nuzzles her little head against my mom’s thigh as if there is no place in the world she’d rather be. I remember feeling like that too.
Grace is going to be your Connection during the Impressioning. She’s going to help you through.
Through what? What do I have to do?
You’ll hold the Cornerstone in your hand and your nervous system will be redesigned. You will become the warrior the world needs you to be.
I motion to Grace. How is she going to help me with that?
Don’t worry. You’ll see. The little girl hides her giggle behind chubby hands. Grace waves to me and gives my mom’s leg a euphoric squeeze, eyes pressed shut, her smile wide. My mom reaches down and pats the little girl’s back and then Grace is gone. My mom’s field sheds, petal by petal, until we are standing in Garrett’s back yard again.
Garrett steps forward. I feel as though I’ve been away a long time. When I see him, it’s like finding money. I take a step toward him, but my leg muscles melt and he catches me before I slam face first into the ground.
I laugh, embarrassed, as he pulls my body against his for support. It seems like I should be scared about feeling like this, but I’m too tired to figure out why.
“I feel like I just got knocked out,” I slur.
“That’s normal.” Garrett chuckles. “I wanted to sleep for three weeks after I met my connection. Twisting fields does that.”
“Yeah sleep. Weeks. Good.” Talking feels like I’m just smearing language all over my lips.
My mom doesn’t look tired at all. She puts her arm around my waist from the other side.
“Let’s get her to bed,” she says.
The French doors appear to be twenty miles away. They drag me along until I stumble and Garrett catches me.
“I’ve got her,” he says. I feel like I’m floating and then I realize Garrett has scooped me up in his arms. I curl against him, my cast draped awkwardly at the back of his neck, and my lips only inches from the hollow of his cheek.
My thoughts are so topsy-turvy that when I assure him I can walk on my own, I realize moments later that I didn’t even say the words out loud. They are still stuck in my head.
Without being able to tell him how capable I am of walking, I remain in his arms. My head is a rock that becomes heavier and heavier as he carries me. I finally give in and drop my forehead against his neck. I breathe in the scent of his skin. There is nothing in the world, not the ocean, or chocolate, or award-winning flowers, that smell as good as Garrett’s skin.
I let myself think, I hope he loves me, and then I wonder if I’ve said it out loud. I try hard to remember if I’d formed the words with my lips. No. I didn’t. I’m sure I didn’t. I’m convinced of it, until he murmurs back, “Don’t worry. He does.”
I squeeze my eyes shut and that’s all it takes to fall asleep.
I thought Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest. But I guess God exempted the Reese house.
It smells warm and sweet. The TV is on. I open one eye, find the ceiling, and identify the slats up there as being in the Reeses’ living room. I confirm it by listening to Sean and Mark’s heated discussion in the kitchen, concerning dish-washing duties. I shut my eye again and listen to Iris squawking at the dining room table about her granola being too mushy and Mrs. Reese telling her that’s what happens when you go off and play for an hour without finishing your breakfast first.
I hear Brandon bounce into the room, knocking around his Hacky Sack, and I begin to drift back to sleep, listening to the rhythmic thunk, thunk, thunk of the bag against his foot. It is a pleasant sound until I hear him squeal, “Wha!!!” and the thing smashes into my forehead.
My body feels like pulverized meat, so even though I groan, I don’t put my arms over my face or open my eyes. I feel the foot bag slide off and land on the pillow beside my left temple.
“Get out of here with that,” Garrett growls and the heat of his skin brushes my face, the scent of him here and gone too fast. The end cushion of the couch jerks under my feet, and I hear the tiny bag whizzing through the air, and then Brandon’s grunt on impact.
I remember. My energy zapped after meeting Grace. Garrett carried me. I was talking and not talking. Not talking and talking. I was hoping Garrett said something. He does. Did he actually say that? Was he answering the question I thought I’d asked? I lay there with my eyes closed and let the hope come back again.
It’s not the couch, but Garrett, under my heels. I try to shove myself into a sitting position, but the best I can do is leverage my shoulder blades onto the arm of the couch. Ugh. The minute I get there, I look down at my feet and see Garrett watching me. I slide my heels off his lap and hope my hair is not standing on end. It feels as prickly as if I’d had a balloon rubbed on my head.
“How are you feeling?” he asks. He doesn’t say it like a boy that has confessed his love for me. He says it with concern, like any good friend would. My heartbeat drops to a crawl.
And the truth is that I feel like a dog that’s swallowed grass. I could be the inside of a hot sneaker. But if he said what I hope he did, I don’t want him unthinking it by me blabbing about dogs and sweaty shoes.
“Great,” I tell him.
“Liar.” He laughs and I’m grateful when he drops it. “Your friend, Cora, called.”
“How did she know I was here?”
He shrugs. “She actually talked to Sean and she asked him if I knew where you were, so he told her.”
“Oh no...” I groan. “He said we’ve been staying here?”
“Uh...sorry, Nali,” Sean says from the doorway behind me. “I thought she was a good friend of yours and she sounded really worried. Like she was crying.”
“She’s got post-nasal drip.” I groan again. I throw my good arm over my face. In the dark of my elbow, I think of all the phones that are probably ringing across the Simon Valley student body at this very moment.
“C’mon, sleepy head. Shake it off,” my mom says and I remove my arm to look at her. She looks...chipper. The polar opposite of every single thing going on in my body. Garrett glances at his watch.
“Whoa, it’s already nine,” he says. Nine is too early to be acting so alive. I pull up a corner of my lip to prove it. At least, I think I do.
“We’ve got to get going before these cookies cool,” my mom says, holding up a steamy bag of cookies. I stare at them, mesmerized.
“Are those real cookies?” I ask.
“Oatmeal raisin.” She nods with a grin. She opens the bag and waves them around my face, releasing sweet cookie vapors that I suck up like a vacuum.
“You made them?”
“Yes, I made them.” She laughs like she’s Betty Crocker. “Come on. I’ll give you one if you get moving. Grace isn’t going to wait around forever.”
Garrett stands up and puts out his hand to me. I let him drag me onto my feet and I take the cookie my mom hands me. I grip it with my fingertips and feel the heat of the cookie inside my plaster arm cage.
“What’s Grace got to do anyway? She’s like...two,” I say. Then I close my eyes and try to savor my cookie instead of focusing on how the Addo will burn a mark like Garrett’s into my own hand.
My strength returns after I eat half the bag of cookies, quietly, in the back seat of Garrett’s car. Mr. and Mrs. Reese follow behind us in their old Suburban.
At the Addo’s there is only one parking space, which Garrett pulls into. We wait on the sidewalk for Mr. and Mrs. Reese to walk up to the Addo’s door with us. Mr. Reese knocks and walks right in, followed by everyone else. I walk in last.
“Hey there, everybody! Oh, and hello there, Gracie! Did you bring cookies?” Addo shouts to us from across the room. My awe over him knowing that I’ve even met a little girl named Grace completely escapes me as my eyes travel around his blazing, yellow kitchen in horror. The room is packed with strangers. Strangers in every seat around the table and strangers standing, crowded, against the walls. It looks like a jury deliberation, except that the place is lit up with lively conversation and the cozy smells of warm tea and people in their Sunday best. This is a party. A party that needs cookies.
I grip the top of the plastic bag with my fingertips. My mom turns to me, looks down at my hand, and sees the half-empty bag. Every drop of blood in my body goes gushing into my cheeks. Garrett cracks up, which makes it even worse.
Addo’s laughter roars in the back of my head. Happens to me all the time!
My mom gives me a look that says, Are you kidding me? as she takes the bag and turns back to the room.
“You know, I haven’t baked in so long, I’m not sure I made enough,” she says, putting what’s left on the table.
A thick woman, with a head full of thick yellow curls, makes an awww sound.
“Oh, Evangeline, you know us! We’re just teasing you.” All the strangers around the table begin to laugh. An Oriental woman leans back and taps my cast sympathetically.
“Addo, where are you hiding the food?” a man with a cowboy hat asks.
The Addo motions to the fridge and some cupboards, and the table becomes a grabby assembly line, with trays of desserts passed and sampled as they go.
“You see now why I need this monstrous kitchen?” Addo asks. “No one ever wants to sit in a living room.” He hands my mom and me cups of tea.
Garrett wanders away, shaking hands, and the woman with the curls hands him a mug of tea too. I hold the mug, but the ceramic is hot. My palms start to sweat, thinking of how the Addo is going to burn my identification into my skin, and I have to set my mug down before it slips out of my hand.
“Are you okay?” my mom whispers to me, and I nod yes even though my stomach insists I should be shaking my head no.
Everyone eats for too long, and it seems years have passed before the Addo clears his throat and the chatter evaporates.
“For those of you who might have missed all the gossip, I want to introduce Nalena Maxwell. She is the daughter of Alo Evangeline...” There is a low mumble of sentiments like good to have you back, and we’ve missed you, Evangeline. The Addo continues, “And also of Alo Roger Maxwell.”
An itchy silence follows my father’s name. A wiry man at the far end of the table clears his throat and says, “Roger Maxwell is one of The Fury. He’s not Alo in my book.”
A woman drops her warm brown eyes to the table cloth and says, “No. Not in anyone’s book, I think.”
A murmur wiggles around the edge of the table. My mom looks at her feet. I look at her feet too.
“That,” Addo’s voice booms suddenly, strong as cast iron and flat as calm water. “is not for anyone here to decide.”
“Well, has he been redeemed yet?” A tiny woman in plaid sniffs.
“Is that any of your business?” Addo asks briskly. He waits a moment, searching faces for someone else to comment, but when no one does, he turns to my mother and smiles. “We are honored, Alo Evangeline, for your daughter to join our community.”
“Why am I here again?” The wiry man asks.
A squat man with glasses agrees. “Yes, Addo, we’re all curious. We welcome Evangeline and her daughter, but since when have so many Contego been called to sit in on an Alo Impressioning?”
“You all assume so much,” Addo says, taking a cookie from the bag my mom brought. His mouth is full as he says, “Nalena has been given the sign of Contego...you bunch of smarty pants.”
It’s not a collective gasp, but something close to it. Garrett has worked his way back to me, but there is little room between the people seated at the table and the people standing against the walls, so he stands at an angle that shields me from most of the people who are staring. He seems oblivious as he ducks his head and sips his tea, but I notice how his eyes scan the room. I reach out and take my mom’s hand. It’s smooth and warm as she gives me a tiny, comforting squeeze. Then she shakes loose and steps forward.
“I asked my daughter to choose a Simple life,” my mom says out loud. “To keep her from all the gossip, as well as the truth, about our family, but now she knows everything and she’s still chosen to be among you. I ask, as her mother, will you accept her?”
There are murmurs again and this time the conversations jump and pop around the room like bubbles in boiling water. The woman with the curls raises her hand and smiles at me.
“I accept her.”
The woman that tapped my cast, and the man with the cowboy hat, both raise their hands and say in unison, “We accept her.”
The wiry man throws up a hand of surrender and smiles at me. “’Course I accept her.”
It goes around the table like this, everyone saying they accept me, even if a few of them seem hesitant at first. Garrett is last, and he looks me in the eyes as if we’re the only two people in the room as he tells the Addo, “I accept her.”
I want to soak in the moment, but Addo wrecks it.
“Fine, fine,” he says and he works his way around everyone, to the refrigerator. He opens the freezer door on top, and reaches in up to his arm pit, feels around, and withdraws a thing that hangs over the sides of his hand like a black tongue. I squint. It’s an old sock.
“Eww, cold, cold, cold!” Addo juggles the sock between his hands as he makes his way back to me. I was thinking he’d use a hot poker for Impressioning. Or a piece of coal. Not something out of a sock from his freezer.
“You need more storage.” Someone laughs and someone else agrees. I have no idea who is saying what anymore, because I am watching Addo grip the middle of the sock and shake whatever is in it, out, onto his own hand.
First there is a tiny jar of something that sloshes inside, even though the glass fogs in the warmth of the kitchen. He hands the jar to my mom and she unscrews the cap. Then he stops shaking the fabric and feels around in the sock, pulling out a red plastic paint brush that looks like it came from a paint-by-numbers set. He hands that to her too. Lastly, he turns the sock upside down carefully and works something—it looks like a corner piece of a broken rock—out of the end. He keeps hold of that himself, and drapes the sock in the crook of his elbow.
“Give me your...left hand.” Addo takes the paintbrush from my mom. He smiles, skimming his eyes over the cast on my right. “Good thing we don’t need the other one, huh?”
I know he’s trying to put me at ease. He can’t.
“Well, come on,” Addo says, dipping the brush in what looks to be dirty water in the jar. I hold up my left palm and I can’t control it from shaking. I glance out the corner of my eye at Garrett. He’s not grinning. His lips are flat, with his eyes glued on my hand. I focus on it too, trying to hold it still. Nothing works. I look to the other side, afraid to see my mom flipping out, but when I catch a glimpse of her, she looks perfectly calm. She’s concentrating on holding the jar so it doesn’t spill.
The room has gone so quiet that whispering seems inappropriate. I want to ask Addo what he is going to do next, how much it’s going to hurt, when it will be over, but I can’t open my mouth against the silence. Addo taps the brush on the edge of the jar and in a panic, I project my question, like a screaming bottle rocket, at his forehead.
Addo flinches, but looks up at me serenely.
Do you see how I almost spilled that all over myself? he asks. Easy on the energy there, kiddo, I’m only doing this once.
He lifts his brush from the jar as he explains, in the privacy of my mind, This is soil from the very first ground. Mixed with the water from the very first river.
Where did you get it? I ask.
Outside. Where do you get your soil and water? he asks. I see him pinch his own cheek with his teeth, but his released giggle ribbons through my head. It’s not like the first drop of water and the first speck of soil has gone anywhere. Duh. What are we going to do with it? Ship it off to the moon? The first stuff is still here. Talk about recycling.
Addo keeps babbling as he paints the watered down dirt onto my hand. I finally have to interrupt him to ask why he’s slathering me in dirt anyway.
Eh. It’s just part of it. He says with a tiny shrug. I glance around the room and notice that everyone’s eyes are closed. They look peaceful or dead or maybe just suspended, as if time has stopped. It’s startling.
Are they okay? I ask.
Mmm hmm. They’re just praying.
For what? He finishes painting and blows on my palm to dry it.
Strength, courage, wisdom. But probably – mostly- that you don’t muff this up.
He grins, holding up the rock in his other hand. The shape is familiar from geometry class: an obtuse, scalene triangle. It’s gray, old concrete, smooth on the outside edge. The inner part is jagged and crumbly, as if it’s been busted off from a larger chunk. There are tiny flowers engraved all over one side. Some patterns are whole, but most are incomplete where the rock is broken.
Addo holds the rock over the top of my hand and with a grin, drops it onto my palm. I brace myself, expecting it to burn a hole through my skin. Instead, it just feels like a cold chunk of brick, straight out of the fridge.
Let me guess, I think to him, ancient concrete from your busted steps out front?
Those are fiberglass steps, he corrects me. And this is a piece of the first Cornerstone, from the first temple.
Really? I try not to project a hole in the Addo with my excitement. Like from the Garden of Eden?
Addo’s chuckle vibrates my skull. Before that.
What does it do?
Do? You kids with your video games. He rolls his eyes. You hold it. Duh.
I thought it’s supposed to burn.
Like a cattle prod? Ha! Some Contego...like Garrett, for example...explain the Impression as having been burned into their hand. Kids. Addo sighs and I remember to exhale. He begins again, this time in the same monotone that I’ve heard on drug commercials, when they tell you all the rotten things the medication can do to you. You must hold the Cornerstone in your palm for three days. During that time, the Cornerstone must stay in contact with your skin in order to properly re-configure your nervous system. The Cornerstone is guaranteed to give you heightened senses and sharper instincts. You may experience black outs, severe muscle weakness or symptoms similar to Tourette’s Syndrome while holding the stone. Numbness is to be expected. Do not operate heavy machinery and most importantly...just don’t let go of the Cornerstone, kid. Having to re-Impression is the whole-enchilada kind of painful.
Addo rubs his hands together like he’s finished dinner.
That’s it? I ask.
Yeah, that’s it. What’d you want, besides cookies?
But what about Grace?
Eh. She’ll turn up when you need her. Addo says. He snags a cookie from a nearby plate and pops it into his mouth. All the strangers open their eyes and the conversation rises up instantly around the room, like nothing just happened. Then Garrett leans down and whispers in my ear, “What do you think about getting out of here?”
I’m not sure what proper etiquette is for leaving a party with an ancient rock that is supposed to hot-wire my nervous system, but when Garrett suggests it, I am happy to opt out. My mom is busy socializing with these strangers like they are long-lost friends, but when I ask if I can leave, she waves me away like it’s no big deal. I kiss her good-bye and scoot out the door after Garrett.
“I thought they’d have a fit if we left,” I tell him as we go down the front steps.
“No, it’s like a wedding. No one’s leaving until everything’s gone, but you’ve got an excuse. Everyone knows how exhausting it is when you meet your connection. I got to say, you’re holding up really well.”
I’m not so tired when he’s near me. The only thing exhausting me now is the idea of holding a rock in my palm for three days. As we’re walking down the Addo’s quivery steps, my grip is already fatigued and I get a blast of panic that I’m not going to be able to keep holding on.
“I’m going to drop it!” I squeal to Garrett. He is walking ahead of me, holding the tips of my fingers that poke out of my cast. He stops and turns back to me.
“No you won’t,” he says calmly. “It feels like you will, but you won’t.”
“No, I think I’m really going to.”
“You’ll be okay. Did Addo give you a sling?”
“What’s a sling?”
“It holds the Cornerstone in place, if your hand gets tired. We should go back in and get one.”
“I don’t want to go back in there. What happens if I drop it?” I tell him. I clasp my hands over my stomach as best I can, since the cast is over one palm and the Cornerstone in the other.
“You don’t want to drop it,” Garrett says. “You might not feel it yet, but your nerves have already begun the reconfiguration process. Starting it over again is miserable.” His face seems to register the panic that wafts through me. “Hey, don’t worry. We can tape it.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” I ask and I hear Grace’s little giggle in my head. I’m here. I’ll make sure you hold onto it. And my hand suddenly feels a jolt of strength or surety or something that, at the very least, dissolves the anxiety and makes my fingers curl around the rock instead of letting it hit the ground.
Garrett pulls up to the curb because there is a car in the driveway, beside the Reeses’ Suburban. We both know who the other car belongs to. There are tiny pom-poms dangling from the rearview mirror.
“What’s Jen doing here?” Garrett asks like he’d rather be getting stitches. It’s probably wrong to feel happy about his reaction to Jen’s presence, but I figure I’ll just take the karma on this one.
“Cora must’ve blabbed,” I explain with a grimace. Brandon meets us at the front door.
“There’s a giiiiirl in there for you.” He jabs Garrett, but whispers to me, “Don’t worry, Nali. She’s kinda snotty.”
Mark comes out behind Brandon, followed by Sean and Iris.
“It’s over? We missed it?” Sean asks, looking down at my hand. I wave my rock at him and Sean adds, “Congrats, Nali. Were all the cookies gone?”
“They were going fast when we left,” Garrett says.
“We’re on it,” Sean says, and Iris is still clapping about the cookies as the four of them file out of the house to the Reeses’ Suburban.
Jen is waiting in a dining room chair, her legs crossed like thin fingers. She stands when she sees Garrett walk in, and my whole spirit takes a shot to the gut. Jen looks...awesome. She’s wearing jeans that fit her like Saran Wrap and a plunging, white tee. There’s no way for Garrett to know that she’s probably got enough padding in her bra to stuff a mattress, but I don’t know if he would even care. Jen looks spectacular. There’s just no getting around that.
She lights up the moment she sees Garrett, giving him a smile so broad that her molars show. Then she catches sight of me and her smile crumples like a wet banner. She catches herself and resurrects a forceful grin. Her lips seem pinned to her gums with thumb tacks. And she still looks amazing.
“Oh.” She scans my outfit before her eyes jump back to Garrett. “I didn’t know Nali was hanging out over here for reals. I thought Nikki was just screwing with me.”
I can’t even run my hand through my hair since I’ve got the rock aching in one and the other is just fingers, poking out of my cast. But the next best thing happens when Garrett steps into the direct laser beam stare that Jen’s got trained on me.
Garrett’s back is tall and straight and it reminds me of the night at the library - what she said and what he told her. I fantasize about him throwing her out of his house. I’m standing there, kind of praying for it, when he lets me down with his impeccable manners.
“What can I do for you, Jen?” he asks dryly. She curls a strand of hair around her finger.
“I’m collecting RSVPs for my party tomorrow,” she tells him. Then she pokes her head around his shoulder and gives me a grin as sticky as fly paper. “I was going to stop by your apartment to talk with you Nalena, but since you’re here...”
She seriously wants to talk to me? Last time we were in the same room she wanted to beat me senseless. I’m kind of glad to be holding a rock this time. When Garrett doesn’t move aside, Jen smirks at him.
“I’m harmless, Garrett. Seriously, ” Jen says. “Can we have a space?”
“That’s fine,” I say from behind him. “I could use some air.”
I know it’s stupid, but all I can think of is getting her shrink-wrapped jeans away from Garrett. I squeeze around him to the front door.
“That works.” Jen smiles at him as she passes me, opening the door and walking outside. I turn to follow her and Garrett grabs my elbow. He bends down and whispers in my ear, “Bash her with the rock if you have to.”
I smile and roll my eyes at him. Of course I will.
Jen is leaning on the passenger side door of her car, waiting for me. She glances at my hand when I get close enough.
“What is that?” she asks. “A rock? Look, I’m all white flag. I just want to talk.”
“It’s not for you.” I tell her, but there’s no way for me to explain it, so I stuff it into my pocket. “It’s a collector’s...rock.”
“Oookay. Whatever,” she says, like I’ve lost it. “I wanted to talk about what’s gone down with us. I mean, VanWeirder is totally holding graduation over my head until I formally apologize, but I want you to know that I’m not here saying this just because he’s making me.”
“Okay,” I tell her. I wait for her to say something and when she doesn’t, I say, “Thanks for letting me know.”
“Ugh, God, Nalena...you’re so...weak.” She giggles like it’s not an insult. My fingers tighten around the rock and the tingle of it against my skin pulses up my arm. “Look, I don’t want to finish my Senior year with enemies. Some lousy crap has gone down, but I’m willing to let go of it if you are.” I can’t imagine that I’m the only enemy on Jen’s list, and I wonder what exact crap she is willing to excuse me from, besides showing the principal the video of her trying to beat me to pieces. “I invited Garrett to my Last Senior Bash tomorrow. It starts at one and goes until whenever. My parents are at the lake until Friday anyway. It’d be great if you came. There’ll be tons of guys there, so remember, all the fun starts at one.”
“Oh, uh...thanks.” I have no idea what I would want with the ton of guys, except that it might separate me from the one Jen wants. She smiles and nods like she’s done her good deed for the day. She pushes off the side of the car, and walks around to the driver’s side, pausing at the front bumper.
“Is Garrett really that into you?” she asks. One side of her smile is a little higher than the other. She’s a girl who believes the most handsome boy in school could never want anyone besides the Cheerleading Captain.
I know I shouldn’t have this urge to prove her deepest beliefs completely wrong. I know I should want to take the high road, instead of wanting to rub the high road all over her face. I just don’t think it’s fair to be the lottery winner of a moment like this, without being able to deliver some kind of justice for every Cora and Waste and Smelly Mistake at Simon Valley.
The only hold up is that I don’t really know how Garrett really feels about me. All I know is that I might have hallucinated a confession of love last night. I know what I feel when I’m around him, but maybe he makes Jen feel like that too. As I realize I don’t even have the answer I want to throw in Jen’s face, I look toward the kitchen window and see Garrett looking out at me. Our eyes connect and he smiles. I see his crooked tooth. Jen and her car, the yard and the house, and everything else that stands between Garrett and me, fades away. It’s just us.
I’m weightless when Garrett winks at me. I’m not sure how long we’ve been looking at each other, but when I turn back to tell Jen the truth - that I only know that I’m really into him- it doesn’t matter anyway. Jen tears her eyes away from the kitchen window with a scowl, jerking open her car door before she shoves herself behind the wheel.
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Garrett meets me at the front door with a roll of silver duct tape. He holds it up and shakes it in the air.
“C’mon and let me wrap you up.” He wiggles his eyebrows.
“Fashionable,” I say, taking a seat at the table. I extend my hand with the rock in it. He pulls off a length of tape and starts wrapping. His touch fizzes on my tingling skin.
“So what did Jen have to say? She looked a little unhappy when she left,” he murmurs.
“She apologized...kind of...without really doing it.”
He chuckles. “Sounds like her.”
“And she wants me to come to her party too,” I say, chewing the edge of my lip. “She said there would be a ton of guys there.”
He stops wrapping a minute and frowns.
“She really doesn’t get it, does she?” he says. He goes back to wrapping and I go back to tingling, wondering if I have it right myself.
Garrett rips off another hunk of tape with his teeth. His touch remains gentle as he wraps the last piece around my hand. I look like I’ve got a silver claw. “At least it’ll keep the Cornerstone in place until you get a sling.”
A million things come to mind before he pulls his hand away and the white-hot electrical force of his touch fades. He goes to the fridge and pulls out two bottles of water. He opens one, and sets it down in front of me, before he realizes I can’t really pick it up. My tongue turns to sand as I come to the same conclusion.
“This is going to be impossible,” I say, holding my cast and silver claw in the air.
“You’re kind of...helpless.” He laughs. We both stare at the bottle a minute, and then he says, “I can help you, if you want.”
“This is so embarrassing.” I blush.
“No, don’t think of it like that,” he says. His voice is almost a whisper. “It’s just me.”
He holds the bottle up to my mouth and I press my lips together, hesitant, at first. But my throat is a desert. I open my mouth a tiny bit and duck awkwardly toward the suspended opening. It makes me feel like a baby bird, and I laugh nervously as he touches the rim to my bottom lip. He waits until I stop laughing before he tilts the bottle and lets a dribble of water flow onto my tongue. He tips the bottle back up and waits. His eyes are on my neck as I swallow.
“More?” he asks, and when I give a little nod, he returns the bottle, tipping it up again. The water sloshes into my cheeks and I laugh, with my mouth full. A tiny bit trickles from the edge of my lip as I swallow. I raise my casted arm to wipe it and realize I can’t. My claw comes up instinctively, but that won’t really work either. I laugh again.
Garrett leans toward me, a grin teasing on his lips as he cradles my face in his hand. I stop laughing as he moves closer, and then his lips are on my chin, his kiss blotting away the water and leaving a warm trail, as he traces his way back to my mouth. Everything in the world seems to stop. I’m not even sure that gravity is holding me down anymore.
His hand slides into my hair and his lips brush against mine. Where our skin touches, heat simmers on the surface.
I want to feel his hair and his face in my hands, but they lie uselessly in my lap, shackled in plaster and tape. The scent of him, and the electricity playing between us, is overwhelming. I ache. His lips feel soft at the edge of mine and a groan rises out of his throat as he draws me closer, guiding me with the slightest pressure of his fingertips at the nape of my neck.
I almost forget to breathe when his lips close over mine. His mouth tastes like citrus.
My eyes are still closed after he drifts away from me and I don’t open them until he chuckles.
“More?” he asks and I nod. He cradles my face in both hands and kisses me again. When he pulls away this time, I open my eyes right away.
“I’ve been wanting to do that. I thought you would feel like velvet,” he says. “And I was right.”
I lift my casted arm to his face. I want to put my palm against his skin and see if he is velvet too, but the cast blocks me. I can only graze my fingertips into the hollow of his cheek. His skin is warm and the moment I touch him, without warning, my arm collapses, the cast crashing against the table. Panic floods me as I will my own limb to move and it doesn’t respond. Garrett lifts my cast with one calm hand and places it gently back in my lap.
“It’s alright,” he says. “The Cornerstone must be starting to do its thing.”
“I can’t feel my arm...at all,” I tell him. I can’t get the hysteria out of my tone, but in the back of my head I hear Grace’s little voice say, Listen to him. I blink at Garrett.
“Relax,” he soothes me. His hand caresses my upper arm and the electrical charge of his touch is like a deep muscle massage. “The feeling will come back in a while. And then, you’ll be amazed at the difference.”
“What do you mean? It feels like it’s not even there anymore.”
“I know,” Garrett says. He tips his head to one side, his hair brushing his shoulder. “What is your Connection telling you to do?”
“Grace?” It shouldn’t be so hard to tell him what she said, considering I just kissed him, but it makes me feel exactly the way Jen described me: weak. I try to think up an alternative, but nothing comes. I tell him the truth. “She, uh...she told me to listen to you.”
“She’s a good one.” He grins.
“I don’t know... she’s just a baby,” I say. I rub the top of my paralyzed arm and still can’t feel a thing, all the way to my shoulder. “Like only two years old. How much can she know?”
“You’d be surprised.” Garrett laughs. “And she’s not two, by the way. She must be processing to be born. Souls appear younger and younger the closer they are to being born. That means you’ll end up with a different Connection at some point.”
“Is there a handbook for all of this someplace?” I ask, exasperated. I hold up my silver-taped hand. “Don’t tell me I have to do all this again.”
“No, just once. But when Grace is gone, someone else will come to guide you.”
“But what if I don’t like the next one?” Suddenly, my eyes sting. I’m worried about losing Grace, even if she is just a baby and not some seasoned powerhouse of a Connection. She’s still my first Connection and I want her to stay mine.
“The Connections are matched to us. You don’t have to worry. You’ll get a perfect fit, every time.”
“How many have you had?”
“Just one so far. Wally. He’s kind of an old guy, so he’ll probably be around a while,” he says. “But my dad has been through about five different Connections already.”
I don’t want five Connections. Now I just want Grace to stay. I say her name in my head a couple times, hoping she’ll answer. Then I sing it, and I hear her tiny little voice sing-song back to me, I’m here, I’m here.
And all I can think to tell her then is Good. I was worried you left. She just giggles and sings again, I’m here. I’m here.
I blink and realize I’m staring into Garrett’s eyes.
“Were you talking to her?” he asks. I nod.
“She doesn’t say a lot,” I tell him. “What is Wally like? What does he tell you?”
Garrett leans back in his chair, stretching his legs under mine and folding his hands in his lap. “Wally’s a character. You’d like him. I think anyone would. I’m amazed at how sharp he is. Not because he’s old, but because the guy is brilliant. He must’ve had some kind of military training, because he’s all about strategy. He’s gotten me out of a few dozen hard spots that I couldn’t have figured out on my own.”
“He sounds great,” I say and I try to suppress the thought that maybe replacing Grace wouldn’t be so bad. Then I think of her gray-green eyes and her little dimpled cheek, and I feel so guilty I think sorry twice, just in case she’s listening.
“He is great,” Garrett says, and his eyes center on mine like he’s trying to crawl into my mind. I would let him, if I knew how. “He advised me about you, you know.”
“Me? Why?” I ask. Then I think of all the tactics and strategies, and I think I know why he’d tell Garrett. He was probably warning him against getting involved with someone who would wreck his reputation. Or maybe Wally just liked Head Cheerleaders better.
“He said you were a smart choice,” Garrett says with a grin. I’m ashamed then and wonder if the whole world can hear what I’m thinking. It feels like it, so I think sorry twice for Wally too. “He said if he was a bettin’ man, he’d put all his quarters on you. He was right.”
I reach out with my taped hand and he leans toward me, so I can touch the silky twine of his hair with my fingertips. I put my fingers against his jaw, dusting my hand over his skin so he leans closer and I kiss him.
I think that the helium balloon in my stomach will eventually deflate, but it doesn’t. The more I kiss him, the more I want to. His breathing grows stronger against my cheek, until he finally pulls away, gently removing my hand.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Absolutely nothing,” he says, but he presses his lips together like it’s taking all his strength to say it. “It’s just that I don’t want to rush this.”
I sit back in my chair and feel my numb arm tingling back to life. I let it take my attention, so I don’t have to look at Garrett and chance him seeing all the shame in my eyes. All I want to do is rush this. I want him to say he’s mine, 100% mine, so I don’t have to guess anymore. So I can touch him whenever I want.
My arm seems to mirror the emotion, prickling now with hot pins. Instead of mellowing, the heat intensifies and the pins start feeling like knitting needles jabbing through my skin. I want to reach into my cast and press against the skin. The sensation becomes so unbearable, so quickly, that I forget all about what Garrett thinks of my kiss. I crush my lips together to stop a tortured groan from breaking free.
Garrett is out of his chair, hovering over me and talking in my ear.
“It’s all right. This is normal. Your nerves are rebuilding,” he says, but he’s talking too quickly to fool me. He’s scared.
Within seconds, I understand why. The pain rips through my arm like a blade. Garrett’s hands press on my shoulders, keeping me in the chair, but his pressure isn’t enough to flatten the needles inside my skin. The pain in my arm mutes all my other senses. I squeeze my eyes shut, clenching my jaw against another moan. Garrett sounds muffled and far away, telling me I’m going to be okay, but I don’t believe him.
Suddenly, Grace appears, projected on the inside of my eyelids.
She’s beaming at me, with her tiny, baby teeth and I see her as if she’s real and human, standing in front of me. She’s not some gauzy, shiny ghost at all. I see her thick eyelashes and her silky skin, her baby-fine honey hair. I believe that I could open my eyes and she’d be there too, but I won’t chance it, because the sight of her takes the edge off of the needles piercing my arms.
Breathe through your nose. Grace tells me, pointing a chubby finger to her own. Like this.
She takes a deep, dramatic breath and then blows it out her mouth like a whoopee cushion.
“It hurts,” I tell her, but Garrett answers me first, from somewhere beyond my eyelids.
“It’s going to pass. Hang in there. You’re okay.”
I like him, Grace says. He’s good in his heart. Want to see what I can do?
I can’t answer. The pain spikes up my arm and I think that if I could just touch my skin under the cast, it would help, but I can’t get to it. The urge to press on my skin becomes unbearable. I claw at my cast with my eyes squeezed tight, and when there is no relief, I raise my arm over my head. I bring it down hard against the table top, SLAM! My bones vibrate inside the cast like a tuning fork. It feels good. I do it again and again, until I hear the cast crack, then shatter. With the air on my skin, I hold my freed arm to me and Garrett’s arms buckle over the top of mine.
Watch! Grace commands, and inside my eyes, I writhe in pain as she blows a bubble from her tiny lips. She smiles through the sphere of iridescent bubble gum and then she blows the bubble even bigger. She giggles. She’s made a gum balloon so big that I can’t even see her behind it. All I can see is a grinning version of her through the middle, as if she’s caught in a fun house mirror. Her musical laughter makes the bubble quiver. With one happy squeal she pops it, and a sparkling shower of translucent petals drift down over both of us.
The sensation of pain ebbs away. The needles pull free in clusters and I stop shaking. I rest the back of my head against Garrett’s stomach, eyes closed. I try to calm my heartbeat by matching my breathing to his steady rhythm.
All done. Grace claps her hands together. She does a floppy, bye-bye wave to me. I panic that she’s leaving for good.
“Don’t go!” I shout to her, and she and Garrett both answer in unison, I’m not leaving you, even as I see her disappear into the darkness of my own eyelids.
I open my eyes and she is gone. Garrett’s arms are still stretched around me from behind, pinning me to the chair and cradling my uncasted arm against me. Hunks of the cast lie smashed and scattered all over the table and floor. It’s a moment before he seems convinced that he can let go, and then he moves back to the chair in front of me.
“You’ve got some kick, Rebel,” he laughs. “How’s your arm?”
“Is she gone?”
“Who? Your Connection? They only come when you really need them. She’ll be back if you run into any more trouble. How’s the arm?”
I’m almost afraid to move it. Slowly, I lift it away from my body, expecting the thing to crack and fall like a broken flower stem. But besides the skin looking mummified, my arm feels fine. Better than fine, actually. Maybe even good. Garrett reaches out and takes my wrist, tenderly feeling his way over the bone toward the elbow.
“Tell me if it hurts,” he says. His touch is so light, I can hardly feel it at all. When I don’t protest, he does it again, with a little more pressure. I shake my head at him, still nothing. The third time, he actually squeezes in places, but there is no pain. It just feels like my arm.
“How can that happen?” I ask. “It hasn’t hurt since that day you rubbed my hand at the track and now it seems normal. It can’t be okay. It hasn’t even been a week.”
“Told you I’m a healer.” He winks at me. “I wasn't kidding. I’ve been able to take down swelling and speed up healing, but I don’t think I’m good enough yet to have completely heal the bone in one shot. The Cornerstone did that. It heals whatever needs healing. Vitamin deficiencies and viruses and things like that are painless when they heal, but things like missing organs or broken bones can be tough. It’s the welding back together on the spot that does it. It’s the disadvantage of immediate healing, but the good news is that you’re over the worst of it.”
“Why didn’t the Addo tell me all of this?”
“Would you have wanted to know that was coming?” He smirks. “Sometimes thinking about what’s going to happen is worse than what actually happens.”
Pure fear drizzles into my veins. “What else is going to happen?”
“Nothing.” Garrett grins. “The worst is over.”
“Do you swear that’s the truth?”
“I’d tell you,” he assures me. He stands up from the table. “You just stay where you are and I’ll get this cleaned up.”
We lay around together, and talk, and watch movies all afternoon. And kiss. His kiss is a color too. Silver. Like raw wires held together until they explode in sparks.
In between, there are phone calls from Garrett’s friends, all wanting to know if we’re going to Jen’s party. The first few calls, Garrett tells whoever is on the other end that he’s got other plans. He winks at me when he says it and I feel like I don’t have any bones.
“Sounds like everyone’s going,” I tell him after the third inquiry call.
“Only a couple of my friends and probably all of your enemies,” Garrett adds. “We’re not missing out on anything.”
We. I think of showing up at Jen’s with Garrett, and walking into her lion’s den. Adrenaline drips into my blood and my pulse quickens at the thought of it. And then the prickling starts again. My stomach is a bag of pins, but it’s not exactly painful. Yet. Grace’s voice suddenly spills into my head like a cooling gel.
Control it, she says. Don’t let it take over. You are stronger than this.
I roll the words around in my mind and I focus. I try to picture myself, as if I’m the size of the nail on Grace’s pinky finger, so tiny I can stand inside my own stomach. I’m the only one who can reach this far inside myself and help. I visualize the micro-me, pushing the pins out of the pink lining, and I feel it working. My stomach relaxes.
That’s right, Grace encourages. Get inside what scares you and change it.
And then, Grace disappears and the prickling is gone. I blink to see Garrett’s face near mine.
“You okay?” he asks.
“That was in my stomach,” I say. “I think I just got guts.”
He laughs out loud. “You probably did.”
“I think we should go to Jen’s party after all,” I tell him. “Nothing to fear, right?”
“True,” Garrett agrees slowly. His eyes are knowing and he grins. “The adrenaline is kicking in, isn’t it?”
It’s more of a statement than a question. I shrug, but he’s right. My body is surging with strength. I swear I can see it radiating from my skin, the same way that waves of heat make puddles appear on a dry road.
“I really think we should go...” I’m cut off by the ringing phone.
“I’ve got nothing against letting every guy at Simon Valley know you’re taken.” The phone rings again and Garrett walks over to it without picking it up. “It’s going to kill your chances of getting any other dates, you know.”
“I don’t want any other dates!” I tell him and Garrett answers the phone.
“Hey Zane-o,” He chuckles into the receiver. “Yeah, I think we’re going. Yup. Me and Nalena Maxwell.”
The sound of my name, imprinted with his voice, makes my heart float.
When my mom and Garrett’s family return, long after dinner time, I can’t remember the name of even one movie we watched, but I remember every single one of Garrett’s kisses and how it made me feel. I can’t help smiling like a dope as I sit beside Garrett, our legs touching.
“Your cast is gone. Hallelujah,” Sean says when he comes in. Mr. Reese carries Iris in, drooped over his shoulder and out cold. He glances at my bare arm and gives me a silent thumbs up. My mom gets one look at my arm and gasps.
“It kind of fell off,” I tell her.
“Are you all right?” She comes over and kneels in front of me, running her fingertips lightly over my skin as she watches my face for any indication of pain. She’s got her worried brow on. I can’t do anything but nod with a crazy grin.
“Can you believe it?” I say. The pain seems like something that happened a long time ago, buried now, under the euphoric avalanche of Garrett’s kisses. She aims her worried face at Garrett.
“I’m so sorry, Garrett,” she tells him. “I should’ve been here for that. Thank you for handling it.”
Garrett shrugs like it was nothing.
“She did fine,” he says, as if I really did. “She whacked that cast off like a champ.”
My mom winces and her eyes drift down to my silver claw. She covers her grin with her fingertips.
“Tape will work,” she says. “But the Addo sent you a sling if you don’t want to look like a metal lobster.”
“Can we make it so the Cornerstone doesn’t show?” I ask. My mom rustles through her purse and pulls out what looks like a miniature, black-leather, surgeon’s mask, the untied strings dangling at the edges. “I want to hide it for Jen’s party tomorrow.”
“Party?” my mom asks. “I thought Jen was giving you trouble.”
“She came over to apologize.”
“Must’ve been a pretty big apology.” She frowns. “I’m not sure I’d trust that girl.”
“We’re not staying long.” Garrett winks at me. “Just long enough to get a point across.”
My mom unwraps all the duct tape, and I grimace as she yanks off the last piece like a demonic band-aid.
Garrett grimaces with me, holding the rock in place while my mom puts the fabric over the top of the stone and wraps the strings around my hand. I watch her do it, her expression both placid and focused as she weaves the strings around my hand. When she’s done, the sling is snug and as artfully tied as ballet slippers. She pats my hand with a resigned frown, but when she looks up at me, she switches it to a smile. I know she still doesn’t want me to do this. But I need to and she understands that. She holds my hand in hers and the kitchen light outlines her hair in a glow that makes me think of angels.
“It looks a lot better, don’t you think?” She tries to keep the smile fixed in place.
“Thank you, Mom, I say.