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For the last day of May, it’s cold, which turns out to be a ginormous blessing. I dress for Jen’s party like the war it is, in my best fitting jeans and my only long-sleeve shirt that I haven’t had to alter for my cast. This shirt is perfect for the party, since it clings to my curves and has these crazy-long sleeves that flare out like bells, covering my hands. Only my fingertips stick out.
Garrett leans on the downstairs bathroom door jamb while I hang over the sink, brushing on mascara in the mirror. It’s nerve wracking, since I have to focus on not only getting the mascara on right, but also keeping my mouth shut while I do it.
“You don’t have to stand there. I’ll be done soon,” I tell him.
“I want to know all your secrets.” He grins. “Like…how you can put that stuff on without sticking that thing in your eye.”
“Very carefully,” I mumble, and my mouth drops open while I try to keep the wand off my eyeball. I swipe the lashes and clamp my mouth shut again, pulling out a tube of lip tint next.
“Don’t put that on,” he says, but his tone is distracted as his eyes follow the motion of the brush. I pause the silvery-pink applicator over the center of my lip.
He’s still staring at my mouth. “Because I’m just going to take it off for you.”
“It tastes like vanilla almond ice cream,” I tell him, and his eyes slide lazily up into mine.
“Well, in that case…” he says. “Put on a lot.”
“Ewww,” Mark says as he walks by. He makes a face as he pretends to jam a finger down his throat. Garrett gives his brother a light kick before Mark disappears down the basement stairs. I turn off the bathroom light.
“I’m ready to go,” I say, but Garrett doesn’t move away from the doorway. Instead, he reaches for me, pulls me close and presses his mouth to mine.
“Mmm,” he hums. “Vanilla almond. You’ve got more of that, right?”
“Your mother is sitting here! Listening! On the couch!” my mom shouts down the short hall. I giggle and Garrett moves from the door, reaching back with his hand to take mine. We step into the family room and my mom puts her stack of paper down, so she can stand up and look me over.
“The sling doesn’t even show,” she says, obviously pleased. She walks over, folds me in her arms and whispers in my ear, “You look stunning, my baby.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I say, a little embarrassed that I’m hugging my mom while Garrett is waiting for me. My mom gives me another squeeze.
“I’m so proud of you,” she says.
“God, Mom.” I laugh. “I’m just going to a party...not an inauguration.”
“I know, I know,” she says. “It’s just that...well, I love you so much.”
“Okay, Mom. Love you too,” I tell her with an awkward smile. She doesn’t let go until I finally pull away, as gently as I can, so it doesn’t hurt her feelings. She gives me an extra tight hug before she lets go completely and I laugh, scurrying away to Garrett. “Let’s get out of here or she’ll never let me go!”
My mom’s reminders, to stay together and to be careful, follow us up the stairs and out the door.
The cops are the only ones Jen didn’t invite to her party, but I’m sure they’ll end up crashing it at some point. There’s just too much music, and too many teenagers milling around out front, for this party to go unnoticed. As soon as we walk in the front door, Garrett does a quick scan of the dining room on the left, the living room on the right, the kitchen that lies at the end of the hall straight ahead of us, and the ascending staircase. He bends to whisper in my ear, “We don’t have to stay long.”
Some kids are playing some kind of drinking/euchre game, at the dining room table. When one of them throws down a card in the middle of the table and whoops, everyone grabs a shot glass from the center of the table and slams it. A girl with white-blond hair glares at us as she slams her shot glass back down on the table. Garrett steers me away from the dining room.
The music is cranked in the living room. The room is wall-to-wall bodies and it looks like one solid, fashionably clothed, thing, that bounces and grinds in waves. Audrine and Kris are standing on top of the couch cushions, in the middle of the couch, making out. I duck behind Garrett’s shoulder in case they come up for air, but he leads me away, down the hall to the kitchen.
The kitchen is just as busy. Kids are gathered in clumps around the island and the counters, talking and laughing and shrieking and eating. Garrett puts his arm around me, pulling me in closer to his ribs. One of the guys that I recognize from the school halls, a small guy with long, white-blond hair, comes up and punches Garrett’s shoulder.
“Hey, Reese!” he shouts. “All the Classics are in the house! Everybody was wonderin’ if you were gonna make it!”
“What’s going on, Middleditch?” Garrett says. “Nalena, this is Zane.”
Zane salutes me with his red plastic cup and shouts to Garrett, “Watch it, there brother. My evil twin is lurking around here somewhere and you know how she is.”
Zane’s eyes roll over me, but Garrett just laughs.
“We’re doing a Polar Bear Plunge in a little bit.” Zane points out the window to Jen’s backyard, where a half dozen guys are peeling back the pool cover from an in-ground pool. “You in?”
Garrett shakes his head. “I think I’m going to sit this one out. But you make a splash for both of us, alright?”
“Rethink it, buddy. Senior year...it’s a plunge, brother…get it? Last chance to make your mark.” Zane would probably keep talking, but a girl calls to him from the breakfast nook. He slinks off to her side, as if he’s been caught diving in already.
In the tangle of kids coming and going from the kitchen, I see faces I recognize but don’t really know, and then there’s Regina. She walks up from the basement stairs, off of the breakfast nook, and shoots me a glare before slithering away into the crowded hall. Minutes later, Jen glides in.
She’s wearing a camisole under a filmy sweater and jeans. And she looks perfect again. Ugh. She comes up along Garrett’s free side, grabs his arm, and drapes it around her own shoulders.
“Now you have a harem,” she bubbles to him. “Nali can be the dedicated wifey...” She motions to me. “And I’ll be the concubine who’ll do anything for you.” She dances her fingertips at the base of her neck. I want to smash her in the eye with my rock.
Garrett slides his arm from around her with a laugh. “Sorry, Jen. Harem’s full.”
Jen’s smile flinches, but she pulls it together. She glides a fingernail down Garrett’s chest. “You don’t even know what you’re missing,” she purrs.
I start wondering if she can see me at all, standing here stuck to his side like a conjoined twin. I clear my throat and Jen glances at me, tacking up a full-toothed smile. Garrett’s phone rings and we drop away from one another so he can fish it out of his pocket and answer it. Jen’s eyes wander over my outfit and snag on my left hand. She reaches down and even though I swing my hand away from her, she still manages to grab it, pushing back my sleeve over the sling.
“What is that? You’ve got that rock tied to your hand? You are such a FREAK!” she shouts and the crowd around us collectively turns to see what’s going on.
Garrett’s got his finger stuck in his ear and is talking too low for me to hear. I try to pull my hand away from Jen, but she’s got a hold of one of the strings that keeps the sling in place. She pulls it and part of the sling falls away, with only one string still keeping it in place. I grab the sling and hold the rock where it is as Garrett pushes his phone back into his pocket. He steps between us.
“We’ve got to go,” he says, but the adrenaline is pounding in my veins. I want to stay. I want to fix it so Jen doesn’t bother me anymore. So she doesn’t think she can touch me and untie me and humiliate me in front of everyone. I want to roar at her.
Instead, Grace’s tiny voice explodes in the back of my head, GO!
Garrett is already dragging me by one hand away from Jen, and I seethe, watching Jen laugh, surrounded by her little cocoon of friends.
“What’s the matter?” I ask Garrett once we’ve cleared the front door.
“Someone attacked the Addo,” he says.
The car is moving too fast to breathe. I try to keep the Cornerstone pressed to my hand and cling to Garrett’s passenger-side seat, as Garrett scans the street ahead of us and blows through another red light. A conversion van’s tires squeal and the horn blares as it comes skidding to a stop. Garrett maneuvers us past it, through the intersection.
I don’t bother telling him to slow down.
I can see on his face that he shouldn’t.
“I’m dropping you off first,” he says. “Tell your mom to call one of our cells if anything happens.”
His words scare me more than the way he takes the corner, the car lifting against the curb. “What’s happening?”
“All I know is that the Addo is unconscious. Freddie didn’t give me any other details.” His voice is unbelievably stoic. I don’t ask who Freddie is. He takes another turn and our bodies rock with the force. “Just lock the doors and call if you hear or see anything.”
“Okay,” I tell him as we jerk to a halt at the curb in front of his house. Both of the Reeses’ cars are gone. I jump out and slam the car door. He’s gone before I even hit the sidewalk. I run up the front steps and throw open the front door, wondering why it isn’t locked.
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She doesn’t move like that.
That’s how I know.
My mom walks into the kitchen from the living room on such stiff legs that I don’t even have to see anyone to know someone is there. Her papers are fanned over the counter as if they were thrown. My field insulates me before he even walks in behind her.
And he looks nothing like his picture.
He's not deformed, but his lips are sunken in a scowl and his eyes are dusty, lifeless marbles. He’s got long fingers, like mine, but he uses his to hold a gun to the side of my mom’s head.
Her eyes are red and swimming, but her smile is jittery, trying to either reassure me or warn me to keep my distance. I’m in the foyer and they’re in the kitchen, separated by the counter. There’s nothing I can do to bridge the space, unless I can transform myself into a rocket.
“Hey baby.” Roger’s cheeks twitch with a smile. His eyes jump in the air over my head as he speaks to me. “This isn’t the way I wanted to see you again.”
I’m silent. The adrenaline is roaring through me as I clench the rock, the untied strings dangling at my knee. Roger’s eyes drift over them.
“What’s that in your hand, honey?” he asks. He looks back at my mom and his smile hardens like concrete. Every word gets louder as he speaks it. “You said she wasn’t going that way, Angie. I knew you lied to me. Again.”
“Don’t aim the gun at her,” I growl.
“I’m not trying to hurt her, sweety.” Roger’s face softens when he looks at me. “Even though she sure is trying to hurt me.”
“She hasn’t done anything to you!” I shout, and my mom’s hands rise up to silence me.
“Everyone has to settle down,” she says softly, but her tears flow into the dark circles under her eyes. “I made a mistake, Nalena. I told your father...”
“He is not my father!”
“WE...ARE...A FAMILY!” he roars, punching the gun into the air. His nostrils flare, and he drops the weapon back down, pressing the lips of the barrel into her hair. “You see, Angie? You see what you’ve done? My baby doesn’t even know me.” His eyes swing wildly back to me, his gaze resting somewhere over my head. My hands are trembling and in my mind, I shout for Grace but she doesn’t answer. “Nalena, I’m your daddy. I never wanted it to be like this. I loved your mama. I do...I did. But she’s messed up, honey. You understand? She messed up bad. I’m the head of this family! That means she’s supposed to follow me. And she didn’t. All I wanted was for all of us to have a better life. But you know what she did, baby? Do you know? She ran out on me. She took you in her stomach and ran away from me. All I ever wanted was my family and she left me with nothing.”
My mind whirs like I’m on a merry-go-round that is moving too fast. The good ideas are pulled out to the sides and I’m stuck in the middle, getting sick.
“What do you want?” I ask him wearily. He smiles, looking between my mom’s profile and the top of my head, as if he’s won a prize.
“I want to be a family, honey,” he says. “That’s what I want. One big happy family. I want you to take off that sling and let go of that life somebody talked you into. It’s no good, baby. It’s no good.”
“I’m not Alo,” I tell him.
“Honey, I don’t care what you are. Your mama says you’re a freak of nature, a Cuspy, but I don’t care. You’re mine. The Fury will take you, no matter what you are.”
“The Fury are murderers!” my mom hisses. “You aren’t going to put her in danger!”
“Danger? You wanna talk to me about danger, Angie? Here she is, my baby, with the Cornerstone tied to her hand!” Roger bears his teeth and pushes the gun against my mom’s head even harder, rocking her sideways.
“You tried to kill me,” I snarl at him. He takes a breath and looks back at me again, with a smile that turns my stomach over and drains all the blood from my heart.
“Baby, I wanted to save you. I was going to make it fast in the woods. Remember how I promised you? I didn’t think I had a choice, the way your mama has you so brainwashed. But you finally got your daddy here to steer you right. I can fix you. But the Ianua’s never gonna let us come back, sweetheart. Not without beating us down every damn day. That’s how they are. Trust me, you’re never gonna be good enough for them. The only choice you’ve got left is The Fury. They don’t care what you are. Everybody’s welcome. Untie that rock and you can be my daughter again. I promise.”
“Will you let her go?” I ask. Roger considers it a moment, then nods. My mom bites her lip. Her face is wet with tears and when our eyes meet, she gives her head the tiniest nod that only I would understand. She wants me to go with him. Or do what he says. I have no idea why.
“Okay,” I tell him. My blood seems to curdle in my veins, too thick to move. I struggle to grasp the remaining tie of the sling. I shout for Grace once more and when she doesn’t answer, I take the end of the string between my fingertips and pull.
The string flows like icing, untwining from my hand. The support falls away and Roger’s smile curls on his lips. I open my hand and let the Cornerstone fall to the floor with a thump. I lock my knees so I don’t fall with it. I feel the energy drain out of my heels, like an invisible puddle at my feet. I struggle to stay upright and strong as Roger’s smile relaxes and he drops his hand, and the gun in it, from my mom’s head.
“That’s my girl,” he says softly.
It happens so quickly.
But I see every detail.
My mom turns on him.
Pulling up through the air.
Finger. Hammer, Finger, Squeeze, Release…
My thoughts explode, scattering like fragments of glass.
If I can get past him...
If he looks up from her and puts the gun on me...
I don’t care.
If he fires a bullet into me too...
It doesn’t matter.
My field shatters. I don’t care. I stumble across the room, past him, and he stumbles backward, away from her, easily. My mom is lying in blood. Too much blood. There is a hole in her temple, where she always rubs with her fingers to stop a headache. I turn her face into my lap and it lolls like a flower on a weak stalk. Her blood covers me.
“I didn’t...I wasn’t going to do that...” Roger sounds small and frightened and far away. I pull my mom into my lap, the last warmth of her blood soaking through my clothes to my skin. And I howl again. I shout out loud this time, “Where are you, Grace? Help me! Help me!”
There’s no answer. From anywhere.
Roger’s feet scrape behind me and my field orbs into place again. I stretch over my mom’s body, trying to protect her from anything else he might do.
And the kitchen fades away as I hear my mom’s voice. I look into her face, which is too broken inside the skin to look like her anymore. Her body is silent, but I hear her spirit call to me, in my head.
Where are you? I scream inside, over and over again.
In my field, she suddenly appears like a weak TV transmission. Her image pulses under a scratched, milky sheath that I can’t pull away from her.
I’m here, she says. I reach for her, but there is nothing to touch. This might be the moment that I will always know as the one where everything turned upside down and I lost my grip on the world. The moment I lost my mom and went insane, just like my father.
But, she’s here. In front of me. Even if her body is too faded in places to see.
I don’t want you here. I want you with me! Come back!
Things are the way they are supposed to be. It will be okay, she answers. I’m staying here with you. I’m your new Connection.
No! I shriek. I can’t do this by myself! Please come back...Mom. Please stay...please...
You’re okay, my mom assures me. I’m here.
My field churns around us—me and this flickering image of my mom. She closes her eyes and hums, the song of whales, and I realize that it was never Grace’s song, but my mother’s...a song that brings us peace.
The pastel petals I’d seen in her field appear again, swirling along in the bubble of my own. The petals stick to the sides and dissolve into it. The strength of my field merges with the colors in my mom’s, until our new bubble looks like cathedral glass. As beautiful and as impenetrable as a diamond.
It’s me and you. And mankind. That’s the way it has always been, my mom says. And it’s time to allow others in.
My field bursts and I see Roger, watching me as if he’s witnessed something worse than his own crime. He backs away.
I hold the empty shell of mom in my lap. The worried crease between her eyes is smooth as empty paper.
It’s just me now. Just me.
Roger sobs as he stumbles away. His howl joins mine, twisting into the air and filling the house with our horrible sound. I don’t want to be any part of him. I clamp my mouth shut and then I hear the gun cock.
It is thunder when it explodes.
I hold my mother closer to me, still wanting to keep her safe.
Chapter Twenty One
I wake up in a dark room that I don’t recognize. I am lying on a bed, under Garrett’s comforter. I know it is his, because his cologne clings to the fabric. The moment I first open my eyes and breathe him in, I am happy because I am with Garrett.
And then I remember.
The darkness settles on me as if I’m being buried alive under it. The grief is too heavy to cry out of my eyes. My lungs is waterlogged with it.
A chair squeaks behind me and I spring up in bed, my field exploding around me. Inside my bubble, I smell her, the lavender-vanilla soap I give her every Christmas, and I feel her, in the way that she always made me feel: safe, accepted and loved. I can’t see her, so I shout her name, and she answers inside my head, I’m here, but two other voices also answer from in the room. Real voices that try to touch my ears gently.
The Addo sits on a bed beside the one I’m in, one sweatshirt sleeve cut off above the sling on his own arm and his head wrapped in white bandages that hide his right eye. The other eye is the core of a bruise. He smiles, with effort, and I see dark holes where he used to have teeth.
Tough business we’re in, huh kid? His voice is raspy in my head. Garrett crosses the room from his chair and sits at the edge of the bed near my feet. His grin is sad and concerned and worried. He touches my toes through the comforter and the heat of his touch travels up my legs like soothing medicine.
You know how you shouldn’t bring fear to a fight? Well, you shouldn’t give it a written invitation to visit you at home either. Addo babbles in the back of my head. The Fury know how to put a plan together after all. Nothing would have kept them out. I suppose everything is...exactly as it should be. His chest falls with a hard sigh. Sucking.
My mom’s gone.
Not gone, he corrects. That doesn’t happen.
She’s... I’m going to say the real word and can’t. As if saying it might open my bubble and allow her energy to escape.
She’s here, he finishes for me. Like the first soil and the first water and the first mother. We’re all here. Connected.
I don’t want to hear his hope-filled wisdom if it can’t make her flesh again. I don’t know what to do without her.
You just...do, he says. We sit quietly, the Addo humming a broken tune and me listening. Garrett moves closer, sitting beside my knee.
“What about Roger? Is he…” My speech comes out funny, a combination of my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and my throat crackling, as if the words are stuck in the bottom of it.
“Roger passed,” Addo says simply and he drops his eyes in respect of the dead. I don’t.
“It was all a plan.” Garrett’s voice is smothered in his throat.
“If what we’ve been told is correct, Roger was supposed to assassinate me,” the Addo says. “He bailed from his mission and decided instead to pay a visit to Evangeline. But, in the end, Roger’s actions were still well within The Fury’s plans. What we know now is that The Fury have been responsible for several of the recent deaths in our community. As well as those we’ve lost in this last battle.”
I wilt. Garrett reaches out his hand and places it on mine. His eyes fill as he looks away.
“No more,” Garrett tells Addo. “She’s heard enough for today.”
But I shake my head. The grief presses my heart flat. I tell myself it can’t keep hurting, although every beat smashes against my rib cage. I’m still here, as if that’s fair. And now I need to know why.
“What battle? How did they do this?” I whisper.
“The Fury has been plotting after all.” Addo sighs again. He gives a sad grin that exposes empty sockets where teeth should be. “Now we know that their original plan was to kill off all the Alo. They mistakenly believed that doing so would halt the community.” He shakes his head, his eyes in his lap. “They just don’t understand universal balance at all.”
Neither do I, but I don’t care about balance anymore. My entire world is on a slant.
“When The Fury realized that they weren’t making a dent by killing off the Alo, they went full scale. They massacred so many of us…Alo and Contego alike. They orchestrated the assassinations of all thirteen Addo’s...and succeeded twelve times.” The Addo’s voice cracks but he takes a breath, clears his throat, and continues. “I’m the only one they botched. They never expected me to be surrounded with protection like the Reeses or the Middleditches or all the other Contego families that saved my tail. I wish all my Ianua brothers and sisters had had such outstanding protection.”
Addo’s eyes rest proudly, if not still sadly, on Garrett. Garrett looks at his own hands, fingers laced and knuckles white, in his lap.
“But we still lost one of our best warriors. We will miss Basil Reese, terribly,” Addo says. The muscles in his jaw drop toward the floor and he covers his face with the palm of his free hand.
My eyes jump to Garrett. His face is stone. My heart, that seemed like it couldn’t take anymore, misses a beat as I reach for him. He finally looks at me, blinks and sees me, and the grief makes a furrow between his eyes, just like my mom’s. I cling to him, holding him, and because his tears remain silent, I cry for him. I wail. My whole body shakes against his. We curl into each other, our tears falling on each other’s shoulders.
When there is nothing left, we sit back from one another. Garrett wipes his eyes and his face and looks away to compose himself.
“That brings us to now. This house,” Addo motions to the walls of the room we are in. “This house belongs to Nok, one of our Veritas. The Veritas are the community’s listeners, so Nok will be able to tell us when it is safe to re-emerge. But for now, we’ll stay hidden here until we know what is next.”
I don’t ask what that might be. I only know what is next for me.
I look down at my own hands. There is no sling. No Cornerstone. I search my palm, but the Impression there is light and incomplete. The war has still come, neither aided nor prevented by my hands.
“I lost the stone,” I whisper.
“No, no.” The Addo hushes me. “Never lost.”
He produces the Cornerstone from his palm like a magic trick.
“I need to finish the Impressioning,” I tell him holding out my hand.
“It’s up to you, kiddo. The pain will be severe this time, since the process was interrupted,” Addo warns. “But it is solely your decision.”
“I don’t really have a choice,” I tell him. “I have to do something.”
“Everything is a choice, Kiddo, and there are all kinds of lives worth living.” He places the Cornerstone on the bed beside me. “It’s just up to us to make them that way.”
He pats my knee before hobbling out of the room. He closes the door, leaving Garrett and I together, alone.
As I reach for the stone, Garrett takes my hand. He turns my palm upward, bending his head so the soft strands of his hair dust my skin. His tears drop onto my fingers. He leaves a warm kiss in my palm.
I lay the Cornerstone on top, sealing his touch to my skin, forever.