Shift -Chapter 12 – Hold

Chapter 12 – Hold

“She had some strange hold over me.”

I flop on my stomach to get a better look at him. His eyes are closed to the sun. We lie in silence for a bit. The sounds of kids playing a little ways off reminds me of happier times. We used to come to this exact spot to play when we were younger. We would have mock battles and practice our martial arts moves on one another. I smile at the memory. But, now was not the time to reminisce. I force myself back into the present.

Nicolas is staring off into space.

It wasn’t hard to accept that Laurie could hold onto a boy that way. I could see why Nicolas wanted her. An image of Laurie at the dance snakes into my mind. She’d made all the boys want to leave their dates. Any super model would die to have her long legs, perfect bronze skin and exotic features. She was perfect. Just thinking about her made me take a hit on my own self-esteem, and I didn’t much like it. I banish her image from my mind. I would not let her haunt me.

Nicolas continues, “It was crazy because whenever she was around me it was like I couldn’t breathe without her. I felt strangled. As soon as we’d part I get this major head rush…”

My mouth fell open. Laurie did that to me sometimes … but I’d thought it was only my reaction to her scariness.

“You think I’m kidding … it was exactly like I’d been holding my breath for too long. Every time I was away from her I’d feel lighter but then I’d go through what I’d done that day or what I had done in the hours that I was with her and I wouldn’t recognize the memories. I knew they were mine but I couldn’t remember doing any of it.”

“I’ve wanted to call you, to talk to you… I even took pictures of you when I was sure Laurie wasn’t looking just so I could see you when she wasn’t looking … but anytime I’d even think about you it was if her image would come blaring into my mind.”

He shuddered, “Once I fought it enough to the point where I’d make up my mind to see you. I wrote you a letter and I was going to slip it in your locker. I have the original here, with me.” He slips his hand under him and wrestles something out of his back pocket. It’s an extremely crinkled piece of binder paper. He turns it over and over in his long fingers.

“When I walked up to your locker you were already there. I can’t begin to explain how happy I was. I just wanted to go over to you and give you a huge hug. It was the first time I had really seen you. I felt whole again.” He turned his head and smiles up at me. I gave him a small smile back. I remembered that first day, or last day depending on how I really wanted to look at it. The last time I had spoken to Nicolas had been in the first week of school. I had turned the events around in my head so much the past few weeks thinking that I had done or said something wrong. He went on. “I think I grinned for the first time since school started. I was about to call out to you, but you looked upset. You were talking to someone. I made the huge mistake of looking at who you were arguing with. You were with Laurie. As soon as I saw her my breath caught. Everything faded and I walked over to her like the zombie I was and held her hand. I don’t think I even looked your way. When she kissed me…”

I cringe. If he was trying to explain his actions the last few weeks in a manner that I would accept and understand … bringing that up would not help. He notices.

“Um, well… I guess the less I mention that, the better.” He gazes apologetically into my eyes. “I’m sorry. I know I owe you a lifetime of “sorry’s” and even then it won’t be enough. I know that this flimsy story won’t be enough to garner your friendship again … but I have to try.”

“Nicolas… I…” How could I put this into words that didn’t sound lame and mushy poetical? I stare across the lush green grass. “No matter what you say to me right now, or ever really, no matter what … I’ll always be your friend.”

He smiles … a twinge of sadness still lingering in his eyes. “I really don’t deserve that, especially after everything. You really shouldn’t be friends with me. I don’t want you to hurt anymore.”

“Well then, don’t. Don’t hurt me.” I give a small laugh, “You haven’t finished your story yet. So maybe you’ll get your wish and I’ll stomp off into the sunset and never see you again.” I playfully push him with my left shoulder, and cringe. The bruise there was still throbbing. An unfriendly reminder of what had happen just a few nights ago. I shiver at the thought.

Nicolas’ light smile turns menacing. He is remembering that night also. “You really should get checked for rabies, you know.” I could hear the attempt at sarcasm but it was hard to notice around the growling. He touches my shoulder gently, “Why did you leave with him? Why not wait for Jen or…”

“Oh no… You’re on the chopping block right now.” He sighs and lets his hand slip off my shoulder and onto the moist grass by my hand.

I look at the frayed piece of paper now clutched tightly in his other hand. “Can I read my real letter?”

He blinks and lets the paper uncrinkle in his hand. “In a bit.” He tries, unsuccessfully, to smooth down its worn edges before sticking it into his front pocket. Nicolas looks, well stares forcefully, into my eyes. The heat rises into my face. “You will tell me what that was all about. Rich? Of all the guys you could have gone home with! He isn’t even your type!”

“What the hell, Nic… You were sucking Laurie’s face off. He was there. I needed to get out of there.” I scramble to get onto my feet. I would stomp off now. “How do you know what my type is? I didn’t even know you cared!”

He grabs my hand and gently pulls me back down onto the grass. We were now sitting up facing each other. I wouldn’t look at him … my face was still burning and I didn’t want him to see it.

“I’m sorry. I’ve been having a hard time controlling my temper lately.” He sighs, “Like I said, a lifetime of apologies.” He smiles but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “I shouldn’t have said that. You can go out with whoever you want, even if he’s a big hairy oaf. BUT … you’re wrong, you know. About me not caring about you. I do care. A lot. It was probably the only thing that got me through … everything.” He hesitates. I calm down. My face still felt a little warm but I had a feeling it was because of his proximity to me than anything else.

He lets out a great big sigh as he flops back onto the grass, his blue eyes more brilliant than the wide expanse of sky they were searching. I remember then that he’d never told me why his eyes looked different now. It was as if the sun was rising out of them. They were slightly golden around the irises.

I realized a moment too late that I’d been staring. Nicolas is smiling timidly up at me. My face gets hot … again. I really wish it would stop doing that. I was still sitting up and I arched my back a little to stare up into the sky and hopefully to get the blood to rush back out of my face.

He snickers a little. “Should I finish my tale, or are you going to ‘stomp off into the sunset’ and never see me again?”

I slump back down again and purse my lips to keep myself from flinging words at him that I probably didn’t mean and would definitely regret later.

Still smiling he looks back up into the sky. I look too. I could see a few white clouds forming in the distance.

“So… ah…” He is trying to edit out the kissing part. “Ok… so, I wanted to give you my note but since I was so full of Laurie’s presence I had completely forgotten about it. But somehow she knew. She asked what I was doing here and I confessed that I wrote a note to you. She held her hand out and I gave it up to her without a second thought. She read my note to you.” Unconsciously, his hands reached up to his breast pocket. The note was still there. “I could see the calculation in her eyes as she crumpled up the paper.”

“This is going to sound really lame, but maybe it’ll drive home the point I’ve been trying to make about her tremendous hold on me. I was terrified that she was going to be mad at me. I would have crawled on glass naked if it would make her happy. I was such an idiot!” He pounded the ground with his fist. I could feel the vibrations from it course through my body. He’d gotten much stronger than I’d realized. There was a dent in the dirt where his fist had been.

My eyes widen a little but, I stay quiet. I want him to finish this story. I want him to explain why some beautiful, scary and perhaps homicidal and psychotic girl had stolen my best friend.

“Sorry.” He slumps a little. “So there I was, being a blithering idiot. Begging her to forgive me, to not be mad at me … that I didn’t mean what I had written … that I would do anything to make her stay with me.” I could tell that he was editing again. It was probably for the best. I didn’t really want to hear everything he’d said, or done, to get back in her favor.

“She wasn’t mad. She … well … she forgave me.” He looks up into my blank stare. I was trying not to show my revulsion, and failing. He hurries through to the next part. “I noticed that she’d tossed my note into the trash can next to your locker. Even in my crazed state, something in my mind was a little … angry … by the way it was crumpled in there. Like that letter was really important. Her hold on me must have been slipping a little, but as I said before, my mind wasn’t focused. I followed her, like the little lapdog I’d become, behind Laurie and Cami as they whispered. They stopped. They had come to some sort of agreement and Cami walked away.”

“Laurie turned to face me. I told her I would take any punishment she had to offer me. I just wanted to be near her. She said, ‘I’d like to write your little friend a note of my own. Can you write it for me? I don’t think she’ll come if I write it.’” He stops.

My breathing is labored. I remember that simple letter in Nicolas’ messy handwriting. I remember all the hope that it had given me just to be dashed to pieces hours later in the cold Gym. The blaring light and Laurie’s snake like tongue practically tasting the fear in the air. I grip the grass to steady myself as the nightmare slips into my consciousness.

I hear a rustling as his warm body wraps around my back, holding me gently from behind. “Do you want me to stop? I don’t want you to go through this again. I’ve put you through so much already.” His heart is beating rapidly in his chest. The sound of it calms me. I am safe. The nightmare lets go of me.

“No … you … we need to talk. And I need to know why.”

He still held me tight, my back (and heart) is warm by his embrace as he continues. “After you left with Alison, I remember Laurie laughing into my face and something inside me … awoke. There was no light-headed-blood-rushing feeling this time. I just stared at her like I was seeing her through new eyes. I didn’t want to be with her anymore. I didn’t even like her. I could smell that ridiculous perfume she used and it was hurting my nose. I remember searching the room. I could still smell you there. I could feel your warm presence. It was too late, though. Laurie had already gotten what she wanted. She’s bent on hurting people and I stood by and watched as she hurt you. I had to watch as strangers came to your rescue … from me. I saw your pleading eyes trying to comprehend the monster I’d become for Laurie.” He let go of me then and crawls around to face me, our knees touching. He shakes his head, the sun is gleaming off his golden hair.

“The noises coming from outside in the parking lot were deafening. I heard Jennifer and Caleb help you into the car. The one noise that I couldn’t take was your crying. I thought I could hear you. I couldn’t take it. I turned and ran out of the gym. I had to get away … I was sick. I heard Laurie shout something but I tuned her voice out. I couldn’t see how I’d never been able to do that before.” He pauses, contemplating something.

“Everything was sort of a blur that night …” he hesitates. I couldn’t see his face because his head was down, the hair falling into his face casting dark shadows there. I could hear his brain working around things he didn’t want me to know. “I must have gone a little crazy. When I got home later that night I was sick. My parents kept me out of school all that week. I would have come to see you… I should have but, I couldn’t. I couldn’t face the animal I’d become.”

“The following week, when I did get back to school I found that Laurie, Cami and Sam were the only people I knew. I didn’t have anyone else. I tried talking to you a few times but I couldn’t gather the courage and the others hated me and kept me away for what I did to you. Leading you to Laurie. I hated her for what she’d made me do to you but she still had a hold on me. It was a little different now though. I stayed with her because I was too much of a coward to handle all these changes alone.

“Her power over me grew stronger again until before the dance when Rich gave you his number. I remember wanting to tear his head off for even talking to you. I didn’t because for the first time in an eternity I saw you smile. I realized that you had become friends with not only Jennifer, Alison and Caleb but with Rich too.” He pauses. “You had survived without me.”

“Barely.” I whisper.

“I am so selfish. I got angry that night. When Laurie told me to pick her up at six for the dance I almost told her to find another boy-toy… but I couldn’t. She had me. I would go to the dance anyway at least to see you.”

He brought his hands up to rest on my knees. The warmth sent little ticklish shivers up my spine. He’d been there to be with me. I smile a bit. Then I remember… “Then why?”

Nicky knew what I was about to ask. “Again… a lifetime of apologies … my temper that night… I’m so sorry I said those things to you, but when I saw you with him … flirting with disaster coupled with Laurie’s ceaseless taunts about how good you looked with him, I completely lost myself. Instead of apologizing then for how horrible I was being, I drove you to him. I wanted to apologize but I was just so angry at everything.”

“Then why…?” the memory of the hallway was creeping up on me.

“I’m getting to that.” There is a pain blooming in his eyes. I reach for his hands which had fallen to the grass beside up. He pulls away. “You may not want to touch me after what I’m about to tell you…” He hesitates.

“I watched you dance with Rich.” Anger flashes across his face. I know he wants to comment on that but thinks better of it. He goes on, “I watched you get your food and eat and talk and laugh and smile with your new friends. I watched you have fun without me. I let the jealousy and anger eat away at me until I couldn’t watch you any longer. You were doing fine without me and it was killing me inside. Laurie said something to me then, I don’t even remember what it was. I told her then to stay away from me. I told her that we were over and I got up and walked away. I would go find a corner and wait. I had to at least make sure you didn’t leave with him. I sat at a bench outside in the hallway.

“I waited. Everything blurred for a bit and I felt woozy, like I’d been drugged and then you came out. You smelled all wrong but I thought that was just me. You called me ‘Nicky’ and you started kissing me. I wanted to stop but it felt so right to hold you.” He looks away. His face is bright red. He continues, “I didn’t know it wasn’t you until I heard Rich’s voice and saw you standing at the end of the hall.” Nic began to rush his words as if willing them to spill out. “When I realized what had happened it was already too late. You were gone with Rich and Laurie thought she’d finally won. Something broke inside me and I ran. I ran out of that stupid building and tore around town looking for you. I remembered Laurie saying something about Rich being from Staten Island. I went to the ferry on a hunch.”

“Wait … back up.” My mind was still trying to process everything he’d just said. I couldn’t relive the ferry just yet. “So … when you were kissing Laurie … you thought it was me? You do know how dumb that sounds? How am I supposed to believe that?” The memory of the hunger of the kiss lurked in my mind. It had been so passionate. Now it was my turn to blush.

He nods, oblivious to the small smile that was forming on my face because he was still looking down.

He looks up as I laugh, hiding my blush, “Was I any good?”

Stunned, Nic stammers, “You’re not mad?”

“No… well yes and no. Really just confused though … so you’re saying that Laurie has some strange power over you and then you say that she drugged you into believing that you were with me.”

Nic nods. It was pretty farfetched, but with all the other stuff that’s been happening, I honestly believed him. It was the same thing I felt every time I looked into her eyes. Like I was losing myself. I could also see how a girl like Laurie would do whatever it took to get what she wanted … even if it meant drugging Nic.

“I believe you.” I touch his face, letting my palm rest against his cheek.

“Why?” He looks at me in disbelief. “I hardly believe myself. It wasn’t all Laurie … I should have had more courage, I should have stood up to her.”

I grab onto his hands and hold them in my lap. That brought his face just a tad closer to mine. “You wanted to know why I left with Rich. That is why. I left because I couldn’t stand to watch you with her. I couldn’t stand up to her. Rich happened to find me there. I wanted to go home. He was supposed to take me home. And he didn’t. Instead he attacked me and you stoped him.”

“That still isn’t enough though…”

“Maybe not… but it was a great start. Like I said before … no matter what you tell me, no matter what happens or has happened, I am your friend.”

He smiled, “Friends…” he mused on that word for a second, his eyes glowing.

I take a long heavy breath in. I look into the face of my best friend. I memorize the new lines and definition that had formed in his face since school had begun. I let my eyes brush quickly past his lips. I couldn’t let my thoughts linger there for too long or I’d sink into an oblivion of sweetness.

Yes, this boy was more than just my best and greatest friend.

I look up and into his eyes. They’re burning. His dark dilated pupils totally eclipse the golden rays there. I could have fallen into that dark hunger I saw there but the rest of his body craved my attention. My hands ache to touch him. Shyly, I bring my hand up to brush away an errant golden lock that had fallen on his forehead. I run my fingers through his golden mane, glowing around him in the late afternoon sun. The tips of my fingers find the soft hair on the back of his neck. I hear him purr as I stroke the soft skin there.

He abruptly shuts his eyes. His lids and lips pursed for a moment, his forehead crinkles with concentration. He is fighting me, fighting the feeling. I don’t care. I bring both of my hands up to his face. I run my fingers across his forehead, his eye lids, his lips … his lips … I let my fingers linger there for a moment. His mouth was warm against my fingers and although his face had relaxed I hear his breath quicken with mine. As my hand slides past his chin, feathering down his neck and down his chest, his lips open slightly. He is finally breathing in the moment with me.

I let my hand rest in the shallow hollow in the middle of his chest. The taut muscles there are rising and falling rapidly.

Nicolas opens his eyes. The soft rays of sunset glints off them as he stares into mine. They glow momentarily, as the sun catches the gold there. He brings his hand up and holds mine firmly against his chest. His eyes are still burning with that same hunger the same need I feel for him, but his breath is slowing down.

“Julia…” His voice is torn. “Julia we shouldn’t do this.”

I smile slightly as he shakes his head. Our friendship had already been through the ringer and worst. He was more than just my friend. I want to let him know that.

I wait. His silence tell me more than I need. There was more he needed to tell me. I could see that he was struggling with something. I should stop.

Without breaking his gaze, I slide my hand past his abs bringing his hand down with mine. I guide our hands to his waist and let them rest on his legs. My face is inches from his.

If he isn’t going to make the first move, then I am.

I lean in, breathing his woodsy intoxicating scent. It makes my heart beat faster. I feel like I am running, each infinitesimal inch that brings my lips closer to his is a mile and I still had about five more to go. I would collapse of exhaustion before this marathon is finished but what waited at the end is so sweet. His lips part, his breath erratic. My eyes lower and my breath catches as our noses touch, our lips are only an inch apart. I know I should close my eyes but I can’t stop looking at the shape of his perfect mouth. I want to feel its warmth crush against mine. His eyes close tightly as I tilt my chin, my lips just barely millimeters from brushing against his.

“How could you even want me? I’m not good for you, Jules.” His voice is hoarse. His hand grabing onto my shoulders. He would bring me in for the kill. My heart leaps. He holds me and we are suspended in that moment, our mouths so close, and our lips about to melt into each other.

The last rays of sun disappear behind the trees. The moment passes as a cool breeze blows between us, separating us. He moves slightly back. His face is a mask.

“I know you want to kiss me.” I whisper. His eyes are still closed but I could feel his body jump start again at the sound of my voice. “So why don’t you…”

His breath quickens again and his grip on my hand that still lay on his lap tightens. “Please, Jules… I need…”

My heart melts as he uses my special name.

“Please. Just give me a moment.” I see that hunger flash across his face again.

No. I wouldn’t let him get away so easily. IfI can’t have his lips then… His eyes open slightly as I bring his open palm to my mouth. He growls, a deep soft rumbling sound. I lightly kiss the inside of each his fingers. I let go of his hand and he keeps it there, his rough fingers tracing the outline of my mouth. I close my eyes and just let myself feel. His fingers softly tickle the skin there. My mouth opens slightly and a little whimper escapes my lips. I hear him take a sharp breath in, but he doesn’t move his hand away. Nicolas holds his breath as his hand continues down and back up my throat, lightly across my jaw, up my cheek and tangling through my hair he softly cups the back of my head. He brings his other hand up to my other cheek. I open my eyes. I didn’t realize that he’d gotten so close to me again. His face was on the side of mine. He murmurs softly into my ear, “We should really stop. I don’t know how much longer I can hold out and you are not making this any easier.”

I barely hear what he’d said. All I am is feeling. I feel the tingling of his warm breath against my ear. He lets his lips brush softly against the sensitive flesh there. Those lips that I’d been dreaming about began to travel the same path his hands had taken. The smooth skin of his lips gently caress the soft skin under my ear. His mouth travels to my cheekbone and he gives me the sweetest light kiss there. He travels back towards my ear, my entire body sizzling his lips moves towards my jaw line.

I am having a hard time taking a full breath as his lips slowly trace the outline of my jaw to my other ear. His nose snuggles into my hair and he takes a deep breath in before bringing himself to face me again, our noses barely touching. “Please, Julia… Julia… Jules, please stop me now…” His voice was a soft growling plea.

I don’t want him to stop. This bliss is just so sweet. I want him to go on … and further. His hands are still cradling my head. The tips of his fingers were lightly brushing my cheek sending delightful little shivers up my spine and into my heart. I tremble. I looked into his eyes. His blue eyes turn a deep golden. “I don’t want you to stop… I…” I didn’t get to finish.

“Jules…” Nic moves forward an inch as I tilt my chin upwards. “Your eyes are such a beautiful sky blue right now. I… You are so beautiful and good and… I shouldn’t…”

I place my hand lightly on his cheek. Our lips touch and the universe explodes. His lips burning. Both my hands tangle into his golden mane. This wasn’t the chaste kiss I had dreamt about. I was starving and I needed this kiss, his lips, to survive. My mouth opens against his. His hands tangle further into my hair. I crush myself against his body and we tumble to the soft grass. His lips, so soft, were as starved as mine. We had denied ourselves for too long.

Nicky rolls on top of me. He tries to keep it gentle. He tries to keep the weight of his body from crushing me but I don’t care. I arch my body against his and I feel him let go. I stare into his golden eyes and fall into a deep pool of bliss.

The air heats up suddenly and Nicky blurs. I see his eyes but… “Ow!” I grab my left shoulder as a sharp pain blooms there and I look up into the cold empty sky, frightened. My hand comes away, wet with blood.

Where was Nicky?

NICKY!” I shout and I scramble to my feet too fast and the blood rushes to my head making me woozy. My mind tries to wrap around what I’d just witnessed. I must have held my breath too long. For a moment, before Nicky had disappeared, I thought I saw Nicky’s eyes get bigger, the gold sun completely taking over the soft blue ocean I loved. I thought I had seen a large golden brown furry blur on top of me. I thought I’d heard a growl, not the human-type growling, but the type of growl that only a very large cat on National Geographic would make. I thought I saw the Lion of my nightmares.

I tremble as a cold sweat brakes over my skin.

Nicky!” I shout again. I knew he was still here. Something deep down told me he was hiding. “Nicky, please… I know you’re there.” I hear a rustle to the left of me, deep within the brush. I walk towards it. “Nicky?” I whisper.

I jump back as something black and frighteningly long slithers over my feet. It hisses. A snake. I walk backward slowly trying not to alarm it. It was staring right at me, its black eyes bearing into me in a very familiar way. I was about to take a step back towards it when a tightly muscled arm yanks me backwards.

“Get back, that ones poisonous!”

Nicky kicks at the snake. It hisses again, looks at Nicky then back at me as if it was trying to read us. First Nicky turns into a Lion now smart snakes were trying to communicate with me. What was next… Bears?

The snake disappears.

A part of me just wants to snuggle back into his warm arms, still tight around my body. Another part of me wants to giggle with him and tell him the stupid things I thought I’d seen. The strongest part of me was angry and confused. That’s the part that took over. I push away from Nicolas. “What happened to you?”

He looks at me askance, his eyes were blue again. “I had to stop.” His voice was cold. “We can’t do things like that. I don’t want to lose control. I can’t risk it.”

None of this was making any sense. An extreme cold blows through my body. The sun had set and the autumn air was becoming frigid fast.

I wrap my arms around myself. I had to ask, even though I knew it was impossible, I had to. I soften my voice, “What really happened to you, Nicky?” I reach for his hand. He rips it away from mine. I stare up at him, stung by his denial.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I think you do.”

His voice raises a bit with biting sarcasm, “So … what did you think you saw? Something from your dreams again? You really should get your head checked.” He tries to laugh but it sounds more like a snarl.

At another time I may have agreed with him, that something was definitely wrong with my head if I was people turn into frightening animals. I knew my nightmares weren’t coming true, but I could also tell that he wasn’t telling me everything. He was keeping something from me.

All my friends were keeping something from me.

I knew the truth. Looking in the direction that the snake took fragments of truth begin to form. But the truth was just too crazy to be real. I’ve known Nicky for most of our lives. I push a little harder, my indignation and anger fueling me. “I get that there is some huge secret club that all you Graduated are a part of. Alison and Jen can’t tell me and Caleb can’t even talk! You know what?” My voice rose as the wind picked up. “Laurie is really the only one who has even become close to telling me. I would think, no… actually … I would EXPECT my greatest friend to tell me what was going on.”

“It’s nothing, Jules. Leave it alone. Please.”

“So you’re telling me that this scratch on my arm is nothing?” The pain had stopped. It was a shallow scrape but Nickyʻs nails had dug in just enough to make it bleed pretty badly.

I see Nickyʻs eyes go wide as he takes a step toward me as if to check. He takes a deep breath in and turns his head away, disgusted with himself. With me?

“I’m sorry about that. I lost control. It will not happen again.”

The scratch was nothing compared with the final tone in his voice. That hurt. We stand in silence.

He reaches for me, tentative. “We should go. It’s getting cold and you should let your Aunt look at that scratch. I’ll walk you home.” I look up at him then. Did that mean he wasn’t coming inside? Did that mean that he wasn’t going to tell me what had really happened? I had so many questions but, I just nod.

We cross the park in silence, hand in hand. We walk down and cross the Westside highway and down 22rd St., our breathing the only accompaniment to this evening stroll that seems more like a funeral procession. He walks me to my front door.

I know his answer but, I asked anyway. “Are you coming up?”

“No.” He give my hand a squeeze and tries for a smile. It doesn’t reach his eyes. “I don’t think that Mel will want me to see you after tonight. Please, have her look at that scratch.”

“Nicky, This was an accident. Whatever issues you’re having I’m sure we can get through it together.” I didn’t know what else to say and he stayed silent. I knew he wouldn’t answer any of my questions.

“Bye, Nicky.”

“Bye, Julia.”

Shift by Pili Yarusi – Chapter 11 – Forgivable

Chapter 11 – Forgivable

Somehow Alison and Jen were pacing outside my apartment building when we pull up at my building. A flash of green and pink race to the passenger side door. “He what? Un-fucking-forgiveable. I don’t care that it was his first time! He is so done…” Allison is yelling into a cellphone.

I open the car door. Nothing from Nic. He wasn’t going to stop me. I don’t look back. I slide out of the seat and into Jen’s open arms.

“Holy shit Julia! Are you okay?” Jen is a welcome warmth after the chilly ride home. Nicolas hadn’t said a word the entire way.

“I’m fine.” I wince as Alison hold my hurt shoulder.

Jen’s arms tightened around me as Alison yanks the sweater collar to the side revealing a large gash on my shoulder. “Shit.”

“What did he do to you?” Alison growls, her eyes flash behind me towards the car.

My head is still spinning. I couldn’t take this anymore. Nicolas was still in the car, looking forward into nothing. Nothing. That’s really what I meant to him. I wrench myself out of Jennifer’s arms and pull up the sweater. “I’m tired. I hurt. I need a shower and a bed.”

“Julia. Did he do anything to you?” Alison emphasizes each word. It finally dawns on me what she’s asking.

“No. Just a few scratches. Nicolas got me out.”

Alison nods. “Jen, please take Julia upstairs. I need to speak with Nic.”

“No.” I would not be coddled like some pup. “It’s late. You guys should just go home. I can take care of myself.” I looked into Jen’s worried hazel eyes. “Please.”

“Someone needs to look at your shoulder.”

“I’ll get my aunt to look at it. Please. I need… I just need to be alone.”

“Fine. I’m calling you tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

“Please answer.”

“Okay … and Jen,” I turned back and looked towards the black car. Alison was having an intense argument with its driver. “Please tell Nicolas I said thank you.”

I don’t know if Nicolas ever got the message. I don’t answer the phone when Jen and Alison call and I tell my aunt that I’m sick. I don’t want to see anyone so I just lay in bed all weekend listening to music and checking books off my reading list.

I’m just done.

***

Monday morning comes sooner than expected. Walking the halls. Everyone talking about what a great time they had. Everyone talking of the after parties. I tune it all out as I make my way to the cage, to study hall. First one in the classroom, I take out my latest book and plunge myself head first into its safe literary word. It doesn’t stop my head from wandering. The words and images flow into the words and images of the dance, of what happened after the dance and the rest of the crazy weekend.

I didn’t want to be in school but I would not hide. I would not let Rich and Laurie and all her goons win.

I hear the chair next to me scrape against the wooded floor. Richard’s chair. The room blurs a little as I dig my nails into the table. Please not now. I don’t want to deal with him right now. In my peripheral vision something golden slides in.

It’s not Rich. I tense even further. I would almost rather deal with Rich.

Caleb walks towards me from the other direction. I finally glance up but I’m careful not to look to the right of me. The class has filled. I hadn’t noticed.

“Yes, Caleb, I’m sitting here today.” Caleb froze next to me, his pale hand grips the back of my seat. The golden boy chuckles. The laugh sounds familiar. Too husky but the smooth ease of it was like a dream I’d had a long time ago. I do not look at the golden dream. “No, Caleb, I don’t care what Alison said. She may have rule over you and yours but I am a free man. Why don’t you go talk to Laurie? She’s mad about something, again.” He smirks. “I’m sure you can calm her down.”

I look up at Caleb. His blank face drops slightly. He shrugs and turns away. Caleb hadn’t said anything. My eyes follow him partly because I did not want to look at the dickhead that was sitting beside me.. Caleb sits next to Alison. Sam and Cami are noticeably absent from the table. I jump in my seat but I don’t look away as I watch Laurie yell something at Caleb and storms out. Honestly, I kind of want to laugh at her.

I finally look away. I let my glasses fall to the edge of my nose. Everything gets immediately clearer. I must need a new prescription, I grumble to myself, people were getting blurry even with my glasses on. I take them off.

Jen along with the Freshman boys, Max and Leo, rush in a minute late. They all look meaningfully at me. The boys pull out their computers and show me some of the simulations they’ve done. They look really well done. I tell them that. Pleased, they start fussing over some other task for the project. Jen slides her chair closer to mine. “I knew you weren’t going to call after we dropped you off.”

“I’m sorry… I just needed some time to myself. A lot has been happening. I just couldn’t deal.”

She deflates a little, “At the dance… With everything that happened with Laurie… I thought Rich was on our side.  I should have gone with you to the bathroom. I should have been there.”

I grab her hand to stop her. “Seriously. Jen, you are an amazing friend. Thank you so much for everything. You couldn’t have known he was going to do that. I really needed to get out of there and Rich was the only one there. Don’t you dare blame yourself for this.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I will be.” I squeeze her hand.

Jen flips her hair and looks directly at Nicolas, “You suck. What are you doing here?  You’re certainly not helping anyone, especially Julia, by sitting here. Shouldn’t you go back to Laur…” Jen doesn’t get to finish.

Mr. Stiller’s voice booms over the last few attempts at socializing. “Come to order. Now.” The class is immediately still. “There was an incident involving your classmates. I can only assume what with the speed in which information travels these days that you all know more about what happened after the dance than I do.”

I stiffen. Oh please. My stomach drops.

“I will only say this: all events that took place are not to be tolerated.” His piercing eyes, ever-changing like mine were black today. “Most of you should know better. I expect better from you. For those that are a little behind I expect you’ll be catching up very shortly.” Mr. Stiller’s fist comes down on the podium. “My class shall not be a holding pen for cattle and my class shall not be caged cock fight either. You all know the rules and must obey the rules. That is all. Please use the rest of science period for personal reflection or review your Anatomy notes as I am sure none of you got any studying done this weekend.” The class blew a collective sigh of relief. “One more thing, while this school sees fit to keep its affairs and happenings in the shadows, I do not. By now you all know who in this class has Graduated and who has not. I have some congratulations in order. Richard Brown has Graduated and been transferred out of Stellar Academy.” Mr. Stiller look right at me. I don’t look away. “It was decided that he was not a correct fit for this school.” His eyes slide to the right of me, straight at the golden boy in Richard’s chair. “See to it that you do not make the same mistakes that he did.”

I hear a low growl from my right side.

“Also our young Nicolas Hart has Graduated. He, as you can all see, is still with us. Please continue your exemplary performance, Nicolas. Study hard. That is all.”

I look down at a page of memorized notes. Did Mr. Stiller just congratulate Nicolas on almost killing Richard? No way. How had Nicolas Graduated before me? When did he? Where did they send Richard? What was happening? Migraine. I did a quick tally of the students in my Homeroom. They had all Graduated except myself and the two freshmen in front of me. Why was I so behind?

If I want to be honest with myself, though … what was really forcing me to keep my head in my notes was the heat I could feel from the right side of my body. He had slid his chair so that it was about a foot away from mine.

“Excuse me.” I almost leap out of my seat. Mr. Stiller was standing right next to me. “Nicolas, I do believe your seat is at the back next to Miss Amin.”

“Yes, Sir, but I figured that since Richard is not coming back,” he punctuated the last three words, “I’d keep Julia company and maybe help her with the group project. My group is already done.”

Mr. Stiller’s eyebrows lifted a bit. “How kind of you, Nicolas. Need I remind you of the rules?”

“Rules, sir? I am just sitting by an old friend. I am not breaking any rules that I know of.”

“See that you do not. Julia’s group project is a special one, one I hope she has learned greatly from.”

“No sir. I will not mess with Julia’s project.”

“In that case, Nicolas, please carry on. Thank you again for looking out for Julia.” With that Mr. Stiller walks away.

Okay. That was a weird conversation. How could Nicolas mess with my project? I was already done too.

I tried to ignore him. I discuss bird anatomy with Jen and the boys. The boys want to explore the ties between birds and dinosaurs. I actually laugh at that. There is scientific evidence and I tell them to go ahead and I’ll add it to the project. Jen is not helping. She keeps on making mean faces at Nicolas. I wish she’d just ignore him.

I try to block out the slight purring breath that could not have been three feet away from my face. This boy, the boy with golden hair who had saved me … this familiar boy … but it had been almost a month since I had even spoken to him … until the dance … since he’d even acknowledged my existence until after the dance. I shake. I could not go there. As he would lean in to check my notes I could swear I heard him sniff me. The idea was so absurd I almost laughed, but the situation was so uncomfortable that any attempt at humor vanished immediately.

I wasn’t paying attention. The bell rang. Surprised, I send my notes and pencil flying to the ground. I really had to calm down. I was such a klutz.

Someone snorts and a hiss from the front of the room. Laurie was back. “Oh shut it, Laurie.” I hear Alison voice over the din of the class. Alison approaches me, her eyes scrunched up, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking under the desk. I couldn’t stop myself. I follow her gaze.

There he was, my notes stacked perfectly in his too big hand and my pencil tucked behind his ear. His rowdy gold locks practically obscuring it from view.

Nicolas.

We stare at each other for a second. His face was set in a determined gaze. “Ah, Jules. Um… Julia, can we talk?”

He wanted to talk? “I don’t know. Can we?” I whispered.

“Hey Julia?” Alison puts her hand on my shoulder. I snap my head away from Nicolas. “You want us to wait for you?” Caleb takes a few steps forward.

I shake my head.

“You sure?”

I find my voice, “It’s okay. I’m good.” I try to convince myself. “I’m just going to clean up here. I’ll see you guys at lunch.”

“Okie.” Alison bubbled in true Alison form and bounced out of class with Caleb following slowly behind.

“Jules…”

With that, I finally find my voice. “Please,” I spit, “do not call me Jules. So, we’re talking now?” Was this me? I couldn’t believe the venom I heard.

He cringes slightly. Good. He recovers fast, “Yeah… I’m really sorry about the other night after the dance.” He fiddles with my notes. “I was just… I was really angry and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

I snatch the notes out of his hand. All the rejection and despair of the past few months wants to close in on me. All I want to do was smile and tell him that it was all right and that I hadn’t even noticed. I want to make sure he is all right. Maybe he’d had some disease that required him to stay away from me, and only me. The unwanted images of him flirting and holding Laurie tumble unwillingly into my mind. I wouldn’t allow it. I wouldn’t let him make me feel sorry for him. He’d already made me cry enough.

“YOU were angry? Come ON Nicolas, you’re going to have to do better than that. You almost killed Richard!” The bitterness and flippant accusation flows easily from my voice.

“After what he did to you … after what he TRIED to do to you … how can you blame me for wanting to kill him? I should have drowned that mangy fucker. And, since when did you start calling me Nicolas?” He accuses.

As if I were the one on trial, “Since you started hurting me,” I spit. Oh. I didn’t mean to use that word. Hurt. It was the truth. I hurt. “Don’t change the subject, Nicolas.” I slump onto the edge of the desk and let the notes flutter once more to the floor. “I’m just so sick of this. Sick of feeling like this”. My voice comes out in a cracked whisper. “Thank you for, for saving me after the dance. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t. But, I just don’t understand. Nicolas, you stopped talking to me. You rejected me publicly and humiliated me. You lied to me and let Laurie hurt me. Why am I even talking to you? What could you possibly want from me now?” I finally let myself look into his beautiful blue eyes. The golden rim of the irises seemed to pulse.

A moment passes.

I finally look down and bend to pick up my notes.

I didn’t move two steps as two warm hands held my shoulders to lift me up. I jump and I try to wiggle out of his grasp. Whatever he had to say was just going to make me feel worse. I didn’t want to hear anything he had to say.

Except maybe…

“I’m so sorry.”

I look up into his face. Something glistens on his cheek in the florescent lights of the room. I follow the tears to its source. His eyes. Just a moment ago they were burning into mine with blatant accusation. At this moment they were still burning but with sorrow.

He face was twists into a look of anguish. “I am so sorry.” As his hands drift up my shoulders and past my neck I glance up into his eyes. There was a hunger that flickered there. He was losing control of it. “I should have told you that the other night. I was just so…”

He held my face in his rough hands. I felt the blood rush up into my face, practically burning the tears of my cheeks to steam. I remembered how he used to pinch on to both of my cheeks and wiggle them around to irritate me when we were kids … but this was more than irritation I was feeling. My face felt red-hot and with the bright halogen lights of the classroom, I was sure he could see it.

The hungry look in his face became softer, as he fought, and won control. The hard lines there smooth out and I recognize the face of my best friend again.

“God, Jules.” He breathes. I start to shake as he envelopes me into his warm arms. They were bigger than I remember. I wrap my arms around his waist, and all the pain of the past two months just melts away. Pain doesn’t exist here. I just let myself go. Everything bursts out. The last few months come out in a torrent of hacking sobs and tears.

“Jules, Jules, Jules…” He whispers. I feel him lift me like he had on the ferry. That triggers more tears. My heart is going to burst. He carries me gently to a to a stool near one of the lab stations. I don’t sit. I could hear the sounds of water dripping in the sinks. Maybe it was the sound of my tears splashing against his chest. He gently bends backwards, his arms wrapped around my shoulders again, and looks into my eyes. One of his arms slides backward and his thumb brushes lightly past my ear and down my jaw. It sends jolts of electricity racing up and down my body. I close my eyes in response. This feels so right.

He cocks his pointer finger under my chin and lets his thumb rest under my lower lip. I open my eyes, and the full force of his gaze stares into mine, “I really miss you.”

I feel the strangest need to close my eyes and pucker my lips as bright happy memories flittered past my mind. I think he is thinking the same thing because, against all odds, we are both grinning into each other’s faces. His eyes are glowing.

“Me too, Nicky … I miss you too.” My arms fold into his chest as he moves to place his chin on my head. The last of my tears dry on his sweater. Could I forgive him?

I could try.

Shift by Pili Yarusi – Chapter 10 – Attack

Chapter 10 – Attack

Oh my god.

“Alison!” I shout from inside my bathroom. I peek at the girl in the mirror. The dress was simple enough with spaghetti straps that could easily be covered with a hoody. The material was a smooth golden silk that clung to my body and shimmered with the slightest movement. The dress was beautiful. There was no way I could wear this.

“Jen! Alison!”

I jump back just in time to miss the door flying open into my face.

“What’s wrong?!” Alison kicks open my bathroom door wearing my two sizes too big purple bathrobe and wielding a mascara ward. I snort back a laugh. I guess she’s trying to make sure I don’t spill make up all over her when it’s my turn. A bit of electric pink taffeta pokes out. One of her worried eyes seriously smudged.

“You okay?” Jen towers over the slight figure of Alison. She pushes a couple of curlers off her forehead. Her eyes light up. ‘Wow, you look amazing!”

“What is this?” I looked down at the dress.

“Your legs?” Alison snorts trying to keep the laughter in. “Seriously, Julia. You have an amazing body. It’s about time you showed it off.”

“Yeah! Be proud of it!” Jen pulls me out of the bathroom.

“It’s so short!” I pull at the edge of the dress, fruitlessly. “I feel so naked.”

“Stop or you’ll rip the material.” Alison pushes me down and I fall into my desk chair with a plop.

“I can’t believe you don’t have a proper vanity.” Jen scolds. Her strapless forest green dress sparkled matching perfectly with her hazel eyes. Her foot taps. “Sweetie, where is your makeup?”

“I don’t have any.”

“Okaaay. We will definitely need to remedy that later. You can use anything you need from my box”. The box she spoke of was a monstrosity that took up most of my desk. I look in. It was filled with so many little pots of different colors. My head spins. I had no idea what to do with makeup. What was I supposed to do with all this stuff? I pick up the closest tube for inspection.

“Unless you’re into a gothic look, I wouldn’t recommend that.” I feel hands on my shoulders. “Would you like me to do your makeup?“ Alison reemerged from the bathroom, mascara and eyeliner fixed into a smoky cloud around both of her startling grey eyes.

“No, it’s okay. I’ll just use a little bit of, um, this.” I grabbed another tube of something.

Jen laughs, “That’s eyelash primer, babe.” She takes the tube out of my hands. “Trust me. You want Alison to do your makeup.”

“Okay. Not too much though… I don’t wear…”

“Oh shush.” Alison spins me around and takes a good look at my face.

She puts her hand under my chin. “First things first. Jen.”

“Yes, boss.”

“Tie her hair back.”

Wait. This was not part of the deal. “No…”

“Julia.” Alison’s small hand lifts my chin. Her big grey eyes search mine. “Stop hiding, Julia. Stop looking down. I don’t know why you hide your beautiful eyes.”

I shrugged. I’d always hide my eyes. They get me in trouble. I tell her that.

“Well, babe, we’re gonna get into a little bit of trouble tonight!” Jen does a little booty shake.

Alison wields a metallic pinching object in her pink tipped nails. “So … you wanna do this?”

***

“So when did you start going out with animals?”

My breath catches. I look at the golden boy who appeared out of the gyrating throng of craziness that was on the dance floor. He is wearing a light golden colored sweater and blue jeans. Even dressed down he looks amazing. He takes a simple black mask off his face. Not that he needed to. I would have recognized him anywhere. My mouth pops open. At first I can’t think of anything to say. This is the first Nicolas has talked to me directly in ages. Finally, with some dignity, I manage, “You’re talking to me again … I’m so honored.”

I see Laurie snake over in our direction. Her tight red tube dress hugs her body like second skin. I know there is nothing she can do to me here, but her icy black stare made my knees want to cave in. “Speaking of animals, looks like your girlfriend is angry. I’d better run along before she decides to bite me.” I spat at him.

Not looking back … I walk away and into the crowd of dancers. The tears want to flow. I swallow them. I don’t want Alison’s masterpiece to go to waste. Jennifer tamed my hair into a low ponytail, Alison got to work. After a half hour of brush strokes and face pinching she let me view her work. The girl in the mirror looked like me and yet I couldn’t recognize my dewy golden tinged skin. Alison had used just enough makeup to highlight my eyes. My eyes. In the mirror my eyes changed to a golden rimmed, blue-violet.

My mind was rambling. After two months Nicolas decides to talk to me. After two months. No apologies. No smiles. I guess he took the bait. Rich said he’d be angry if I went with him. Prick. No one notices me in the thrashing gyrating mess of bodies. I thrash and spin with the surging crowd. I see a pair of crystal blue eyes watching me. I close me eyes. Not here, not now. I felt what little control I had return to me. It wasn’t fair. He has no right to be angry.

I let the loud pounding vibrations wash over me. I let it fill the empty crater in my heart … even if it was merely a temporary fix … it works. The school didn’t allow Halloween costumes. They said it was a security risk but students could don masks as long as it covered no more than half the face. Alison forbade me to wear mine. “No hiding,” she said.

The techno beat of the music drives me deeper into the crowd. Alison and Caleb join me in the frenzy, their infectious laughter and bouncing making me drown out my insecurities. Against my own will I find myself bouncing along with them. And after what feels like the first time ever, I feel like I don’t have to hide. I could be me without apology.

Alison grabs my hands and we bounce and sway to the music. It feels so amazing to just let go. I’m so exuberant, I almost miss Alison’s eyes bulge. I was about to ask her what was wrong but then I smash backwards into it. ‘It’ grabs my waist and starts gyrating behind me. I jump forward and spin around.

Rich.

“Hey, Julia,” Rich slobbers. He smells strange, sort of … ripe. Animalistic. His hands grope like a bear trying to catch his prey. I was the prey.

“Whoa… Slow down big guy. You can join us.” I shout over the loud music and try for compromise.

“Aw … Julia … come on, dance with me!” I look over his shoulder. Blue eyes stare at me from within the crowd. I smile as the song turned soft, sweet almost. A slow dance.

“Sure, Rich. Let’s dance.”

Rich’s’ eyes widen with surprise right before he lifts me up and spins me. Against my will, I laugh. He sets me down and holds my waist against him a little too close for my liking. But he does it gently so I give in and place my hands on his shoulders. I wasn’t sure how this was supposed to be done. It was my first slow dance. I let Rich know that.

He smiles sweetly. “Oh no…” he smirks, “I think we’ve done it.”

I look up at him as he spin me back around and leans his chin on my head. “I think we’ve made Laurie and her boy consort angry…” I peek through the crowds. Those steely blue eyes weren’t looking at me anymore. They are transfixed on Laurie. Laurie looks like she was screaming at him. But him… nothing. He just looks at her and shakes his head. He looks away and into my eyes … almost. I turn my head away too fast and my lips brush Rich’s neck.

Oops … crap. “Um … sorry.”

I see Rich’s neck turn red. He’s blushing! He doesn’t say anything. Rich isn’t a horrible guy, once you got past his initial rudeness. He might even make a good friend. That was it, though. He would only ever be a friend.

Just as the song ends he asks, “So what are you doing after the dance? My parents have a place on Staten… Shit…” Rich almost topples into me as someone barrels into his back. “You ok?”

“Gross dude.” A rumbling voice interrupts Rich. Sam looks down at me like I’m just dirt. What was wrong with this guy? Rich tucks me behind his back. “Awww… so valiant, Rich. Let’s play hero so you can get some later. Guess you need a piece of something after getting dumped by Laurie.” Sam smirks in Rich’s face.

“Get a life, asshole.” Rich steers me back towards the tables. “Go back to gettin sloppy seconds from Laurie.” Sam steps towards us.

“Hey, you guys!” Jennifer comes skipping over with Caleb in tow. THANK YOU ALISON!!! “We’re going to get some food … you wanna come?”

“Yes!” I stammer, tugging on Rich’s sleeve. “Come on, he’s not worth it.” I didn’t know what Sam’s problem was with me but this was not the time or place to find out.

“Yeah sure.” I grab his hand and we snake through the crowd over to the buffet. I grab some salad and barbecue chicken. I look at the three kids around me. Rich has piled his plate with every meat product available. It was a mound of protein. I guess that’s how he kept up his physique. What surprises me though is Jen and Caleb. They both had the steak guy slice off two thick pieces.

“Hey, aren’t you guys afraid of clogging an artery?” I laugh. They all look at one another.

“It’s a special diet.” Jen and Caleb said at the same time. They chuckle. I smile, forgetting my misgivings about their weird diet. I look for our table. Alison is already eating at there with her date. At least Alison seems to approve of Rich more now that she’d hung out with him a bit.

When we get to the table, Alison jumps up, nervous. Wow. Totally unlike her. She must really like this guy. “Hi guys! This is Keith. He was a little late because of a project he’s working on at the College.” He shakes everyone’s hand except mine, noting my bracelets.

“Is that silver?” He inquires politely.

“Um… yes. But I’ve asked the School and they said I have special permission because they are family heirlooms.” I was telling a half-truth. I did have some sort of weird exemption but the truth was, I couldn’t take them off.  I tried. They were stuck and I would have to cut them off.

Keith looks at me keenly, noting maybe that I wasn’t being totally honest. He tips his head in acknowledgement and sits. Alison smiles uncertainly and as if reading my mind, shakes her head ever so slightly.

Damn her. I was going to ask what Keith knew about silver.

After dinner, the music starts back up again. I excuse myself to use the restroom.

“I’ll escort you.” Rich pats his flat stomach. I don’t know how he’d just eaten an entire farmhouse and still managed to have a wash board stomach.

“Nah.” I didn’t want to be alone with him again. “I’ll be really quick. Just need to freshen up.”

Rich shrugs, “I’m gonna grab some water then… anyone need anything?”

I walk quickly away. Our table was fairly close to the restroom, just past a few tables. The boy I beat in the long jump from Gym waves at me. I wave back. It was such a change from a few weeks ago. My classmates actually treated me nicely. The bathroom is just around the corner now…

My world stops.

There, on the far end of the hallway that leads to the restrooms, are two bodies intertwined. I couldn’t see their faces because they were kissing, the type of kissing that you only see in movies. I could hear the breathlessness of it. I didn’t want to see, though. Everything went blurry and for the first time since the gym incident I feel a massive migraine begin. I could still see color through the  pain. I saw the red of her dress melt with the gold of his sweater.

I would hurt them both. Everything went into sharp reality. My bracelets burned my wrists as I felt my hands form into claws. I take a step forward. A large hand holds my shoulder and I hear a deep voice shout out.

“Hey! Why don’t you two get a ROOM!”

I fall back against the wall. The boy in gold looks up in surprise, his hair flies briefly out of his face. He looks at me, confused. Then slowly he looks back at the red snake. His face contorts and he steps back. The snake pulls forward. That’s all I saw because at that point I fall into a pair of strong arms.

“Rich … can you take me home?”

***

I am so lost in my thoughts about the golden boy that prowls through my head that I when I look out the window of Rich’s Cadillac CTS, I am stumped. If the Hudson River is on my right, that means we are going south. Much farther south than my building in Chelsea.

I hesitate, not wanting to ask, knowing I wouldn’t like what I’d hear, “Ah… Rich, you’ve passed my building. I live in Chelsea”

He looks at me and grins. There were more teeth there then I’d noticed before. I grip the passenger door in effort to get as far away from him as possible in the confines his car’s cab.

“Hmm?” His beady brown eyes scrunch in mock amazement. “Really, I could have sworn I mentioned that I was going to take you to my parent’s place. It’s on the water. Really nice and secluded.” His smile get wider, “Were almost to the ferry.”

“Were going to Staten Island?” My stomach lodges itself in my esophagus and the little danger guide in my head is screaming. This is not good. This is not good. This is not good. This is really, really bad.

“Yup! Didn’t I mention that to you earlier? For someone who’s supposed to be really smart, you sure don’t pay attention, do you.”

We were really close to Staten Island Ferry. If I was going to get out of this car, this stupid situation I had put myself into, I would have to do it fast. I look around the car. What could I do?

I keep talking. “I thought cars weren’t allowed on the ferry anymore.”

“My family has pull with the officials that run the ferry. We’ll be fine.” Fine. No, not fine. I was stuck in the car with him going 65 miles per hour down Westside highway.

He must have noticed my feeble attempt at planning an escape and chuckles as the locks slam into place. I jump and he lets out a little snort. “You know, Julia, you really surprised me back there. You are an amazing dancer. Here I was thinking that you were all hung up on that Nicolas kid. I thought you were just using me to get back at him. You wouldn’t do that to me, would you?” He muses, letting each word drip into my ears, “That Hart boy and Laurie really make a cute couple. Don’t you think? I mean, I’ve only heard the rumors, and from what we saw in front of the bathroom… I’m sure they’ve taken it to the next level.”

I’m dying inside. I try to ignore the darkness that wants to engulf me. “Please, Rich … please just take me home. I didn’t mean to give you the wrong idea. Please, I just want to go home.” My pleas are hopeless.

“Wrong idea?” Rich is clearly enjoying himself. The words ooze with poison. “I’m sure I overheard Laurie tell Cami that she wanted to turn that little cub into a man.” He grabs my thigh hard.

I hit it away. “Don’t touch me!” I hiss. My words hit dead ears. Rich hits the gas harder. My breath was coming out in shallow spurts. I had to concentrate on getting out of this car and away from Rich. His torturous words were like hundreds of tiny vultures flying into my ear, tearing through my mind. Each syllable making its way to my heart, biting and tearing little chunks away from the bruised carcass.

“Touch you? Hmmm… I wouldn’t dream of it…”

I look up at him hoping I could think of someway to threaten him into letting me go. I immediately regret it. The vultures and the pain fly away in fright. There is only fear. His smile has morphed into a ravenous snarl. Rich smells feral. The sweat drips down his forehead. He looks like a crazed bear looking for meat and I was a juicy piece that couldn’t get away. “I’m not going to touch you Julia.” He laughs grotesquely. “I’m going to do much worse than that.” He put his attention back onto the road.

We pass the ferry parking lot. He flashes a card at the attendant who is staring avidly at some sort of sports game on a small screen. The attendant waves us by without giving the card a glance. He wasn’t paying any attention to anything else but that small fuzzy screen or he would have seen me pleading through the window. Pleading with him to take notice of me. Rich drives in and onto the ferry.

He maneuvers the car into the most secluded spot he can find.

When the car stops I rush for the locks. I gasp as his clammy fingers dig into my left shoulder, pinning me down onto the sticky seat. “I wouldn’t scream either. That’ll just irritate me. You don’t want to irritate me.” His hand clenched harder as he inched closer, enjoying my fear. I could smell the rot of alcohol on his breath. I whimpered in pain as the strap of my dress snaps. “Ah… do you know how much it burns to touch you? I don’t know how anyone can stand it. You are an abomination. You should not exist. You will not exist.”

I feel the ferry rock forward.

He grins again. His nails dig further into my skin as the realization that I was irrevocably trapped punches through me. My mind goes into overdrive. The different scenarios that rush in and out of my head frighten me more, each one worst then the one before. What would he do to me?

Rich seems to realize his victory. He lets his grip loosen. “Confused? It’s okay. We have met before… I know things about you…”

“What are you talking about?”

“Then it’s true. You really don’t remember. Do you?” And I have no idea what he’s rambling about. “No? That’s too bad.” He backs me up against the passenger side door.

“Rich … please let me out. You. You’re not like this. Please, let me go.”

My words don’t penetrate. He stares at me, “You’re riiight…. I’m not like this. I’m so much more. I can do so much more.” His eyes are becoming black and beady. “Then things like you had to come along. You are an abomination. You shouldn’t exist. I’m going to take care of you like you should have been all those years ago.” I’m only catching portions of what he’s saying. He’s blurring in and out. His hair is getting longer, blacker. “You should never have been born… I’ll make it so. But first.. I want to know what Nic and Rich see…” What… but I cant process anything as he pulls me under him. I go limp from fear. Frozen scared. He bends over me. “Good little birdy. I promised myself I wouldn’t touch you, I wouldn’t get my hands dirty on you but maybe just a taste. Because, unlike Laurie’s little golden boy,” he spit the words into my face, “I am a man.” His snarl inches closer to my lips. “I will make you remember me!”

A familiar burning sensation fills me as my hands form into claws at my sides. This would not happen.

I hear something scrape against the driver side door. Rich’s head snaps back to look for the culprit. That was all the time I need. My right fist slams into Rich’s’ exposed windpipe as my left swipes at his eye. My knee drive up into his manhood. Rich roars in pain.

I had to get out of there now.

The next few moments happen in slow motion. Like in the movies when they really want you to pay attention. I breathe out and try the locks. They don’t work. My head turns slowly toward the enraged Rich. The left side of his face has four very deep scratches. My eyes fly to his hands that were raised up to attack me. His body blurs and begins to look very brown. I put my hands in front of me in effort to protect myself. There is a small space between my hands and his grotesque head. The car rocks as I see a huge gold body slam into the drivers side window. It looks furry. I hear glass break as two arms reach in and grab Rich from behind and into a chokehold. The arms pull Rich, head first, through the broken window. I hear scuffling and the sounds of someone choking.

I take a breath in and everything flies into real time. The sounds of choking subside. A hand reaches in and unlocks all the doors. Not a breath later, the hands that had wrenched Rich out of the window are gently lifting me out of the passenger seat. These arms swing me up and hold me close, like a child, and we dodge into an empty stairwell. He sets me on my feet. I wavered a little but my legs hold firm. He peeks out the door, his back turned towards me.

I hear hurried voices. Someone says something about an attack. I hear shouting. I feel the ferry stop and slowly begin to float in reverse. All this was going on but my mind would not focus on the details of what was happening through the door. I was looking at the figure in front of it.

I know my rescuer. He is wearing the same golden sweater that I’d seen him in earlier. It matched his longer sun-streaked hair that fell into a mess at his shoulders. His body was a bit taller and larger than I had remembered it, but he still smells the same. He smells like a light lavender wind that rustles through a forest of pine trees. Woodsy… I used to call it. He turns around to face me. I don’t look up at him.

I can’t.

“Are you okay?”

My head move up and down. I don’t know what else to do.

I sense his eyes scrutinizing me. I felt his hand brush my bruised and bloody shoulder, my strap dangling to the side. I shiver at his touch. I hear his breath hiss out, ragged. His hands pull the sweater up. My eyes followed his hands as if they could not help themselves. He is still lean but in a decidedly muscular way. As his sweater goes over his head, I get a glimpse of his lips. I look away. I would not let myself process that.

He starts to pull the sweater over my head. I push it away. I don’t want him to touch me.

“Don’t be an idiot.” He mumbles.

I stand still as he slips the sweater over me. I try not to think as his scent floods my nose. For a moment I feel… home again. It’s an irrational thought since I absolutely loathed the boy that this sweater belongs to. The acute pain, a pain that had nothing to do with my shoulder, and humiliation of the situation begins to creep into my mind. I try to stomp it out. It persists.

The ferry slows down. Not enough. It bumps into the dock. The force sends me flying into his arms. I grabbed onto him and he to me, wrapping his arms around my shoulders, as if giving me a light hug. He sighs.

It was just for a second, though. We both let go at the same time but he lets his left hand rest gently on my right shoulder and trails softly down my arm before landing on the rail.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” He tries unsuccessfully to bend down and look into my eyes. I glance to the side.

“I’m fine.”

His hand is gripping the guard rail like he’s going to break it. I try to cover my shock as a rush of whispered obscenities fly from his mouth. He never swore. Well, the boy I used to know never swore.

He wraps one arm around me. “Come on.”

As we walk out of the stairwell we are met by a few police officers and what looks like station officials. There are lights coming off an ambulance some place in the distance. I feel his arm close around me tighter.

“Hey there!” An authoritative voice shouts in our direction but we keep pace.

“Hey YOU…. BOY!” A police officer blocks our way. “Where do you two think you’re going?” The police officer had a distinct Brooklyn accent. “Don’t you see the craziness around here?”

I watch as the golden boy transforms his face into one of shock and worry. He looks up at the overworked officer. “I’m so sorry, sir!” He sounds like the little boy I’d known most of my life, “My girl is deathly afraid of boats, sir. I told her that it’d be real romantic. We were up at the front of the ferry when all of a sudden it stopped and reversed back. Sheila here got all scared and started hyperventilating. She just about ran into the bathroom. I’m sorry but there might be a mess to be cleaned up in there. Any who, she just about shit herself when you all bumped into the dock like that.” He grips me harder. The pain in my shoulder makes me jump.

The officer looks at me. I tried to give him my best sick person impression, but I knew I didn’t have to try very hard. From his expression, I was a mess.

“Sorry son. You take her straight home. Poor girl. My little baby’s the same way. Just give her some tea to calm her nerves.” He trooped away and stopped. “Hey … just in case … you two didn’t see anyone run past here? No? Well, I’ll just watch from here to make sure you get to your car safely. Someone was just attacked. A boy got real hurt. He wasn’t moving when they put him into the ambulance.”

He was talking about Rich.

“Yes, sir.” The voice beside me was emotionless.

We walk down the ramp. His arm was still warmly wrapped around my shoulder. We exit the ferry building and I head toward a line of taxis. I am pulled towards the street instead. We head in the direction of a small black car parked haphazardly and illegally in a construction area nearby. I hear a beep. The lights flash.

“Get in.”

He holds the passenger side door open for me. I had a momentary rush of defiance. I wanted to run back to the police and tell them the whole story. Tell them that I’d been attacked and then saved by my former best friend who hated me. The crazy person in my head was starting to giggle uncontrollably. Better yet, I wanted to run down Westside highway. I wanted to outrun the pain and humiliation I was almost sure I could run all the way home. Everything went a little blurry. That was happening a lot. I was going to go into hysterics if I let my mind go down this road.

“Just get in the car, Jul… Julia.” His voice is frayed.

It was insane but my heart let out a small sigh at the sound of my name coming from his lips. He had been just about to say my special name … the name only he called me, but had hesitated at the last second. I close my eyes and tried not to feel. Total fail. I slide into the car. As soon as my door shut, he was already settling into the drivers’ seat. My mind must be worn out, I kept missing things.

I stare out of the window as we tear out of the parking lot. I watch the ferry disappear. The police officers words ring in my mind. A boy got real hurt. He wasn’t moving when they put him into the ambulance.

The police officer was talking about Rich. My mind shut itself against the terror. That greasy slimy bear!

I turn and open my mouth to ask him what had happened. “Nic… Nicolas…”

He was staring at me. I yank my gaze downward. That was a close one. I’d almost looked into his eyes. He puts both hands on the steering wheel and lets out a long flayed breath into the darkness ahead. “Just please … Julia … do not say anything yet. I’m trying to concentrate on getting you out of here. I am SO tempted to go back there and rip into that ambulance and finish off that slimy bear.” His voice turns into a low growl as a string of expletives hiss out of his mouth.

I look out the window to hide my shock. It was such a small thing but still shocking. But he, I could barely think his name, let alone look at him … had known exactly what I was thinking. Firstly, what was with all the swearing and second, he couldn’t have known what I was thinking, but he called Rich a … bear.

Figuring it was just the shock of my ordeal, but that had already become background noise in comparison to the turmoil that now rocked through my body. Nicolas was right beside me. He had, beyond all hope, saved me. He must have been looking for me, the little voice whispered. He didn’t have Laurie strapped to his right arm, as she’d been for the last two months. Nicolas was here, driving … I finally took in my surroundings … a really nice new car. He was only fifteen … how’d he get his license so soon?

“How are you?” He murmured.

“When you’d start driving?” I stammer out the stupid question. We asked at the same time.

“Okay…”

“My father pulled some strings…”

I want to giggle. I looked at him out of the corner of my eyes. I swear his cheek is slightly raised up in a smile. We always talked at the same time when either of us was hiding something or nervous. I have a sinking feeling that it was both. My heart plummets back into my stomach where the acids there could resume eating away at its tender flesh.

He clears his throat, as if announcing that he’ll talk first. “My father pulled some strings at the DMV. He knows the police chief. I went in and passed the tests. When I got home, Dad threw the key to me and this,” his blue eyes appraised the interior, noticeably avoiding the passenger seat, “was in the garage.”

A silent moment passed, “So, how are you?”

“Fine.” I lie. What was I supposed to say?

I really want to tell him how much I miss him. How much I want to grab on to his hand and skip and jump around with him like we were kids again. How I want to forget the pain of the last few months. How much I want to forget the anguish he’s put me through.

He is staring at me again.

“You should really keep your eyes on the road,” I practically whimper. The tears are going to spill. I could feel them threatening to leak out. I’d been doing that a lot lately. I shake my head a little to make them go away.

He turns back to the road, growling a little under his breath. I glance up a little. He was looking out but I could tell he wasn’t paying attention. Both hands are gripping the steering wheel so hard that it seems like he was going to rip it off. His knuckles are bone white. He rifles his fingers through his gold hair. He always did that when he was frustrated. I try not to remember the feel of his hair. “You’re not fine. I know that. Believe me, it’s much better this way.” His voice grumbled softly.

Wait. What?!? I wanted to shout at him. I want to make him stop the car and explain to me why he ignored me for the past two months. Then it finally hit me. For one who prided herself on her supreme intelligence, I was becoming extremely slow and stupid.

“It’s Laurie,” It took all my strength not to spit her name, “she’s going to be mad at you now, isn’t she?”

“What?” Now he seems genuinely confused for a moment. “Oh that.” His jaw clenches, “Yeah. I suppose she won’t be too happy when she finds out I left her at the dance. Julia, what was I supposed to do.” He looks straight into my eyes. My whole body rocks with the force of his blue eyes. They were blazing with anger. “I get to the dance and you are getting slobbered on by Rich. You don’t have any idea how hard it was for me to watch you let him. To watch you pretend to enjoy his big stinking hands touching you. I tried to ignore it … I tried to ignore you. Then, OF ALL THE IDIOTIC THINGS YOU COULD HAVE DONE… YOU LEFT WITH HIM. HOW COULD YOU BE SO STUPID!” His angry growl raised into a roar. “I COULD HAVE KILLED HIM! I SHOULD HAVE KILLED HIM.”

The car swerves to the left as he crosses the freeway. I grip the handle on the ceiling of the car. He finally lost control and we were going to crash, I thought calmly. Instead, he slams the car into park. We were in a lot in front of a dark warehouse. He turns the car off and throws the keys onto the dash so fast that I hadn’t noticed until he was out and the door slammed.

I sit there for a second, my eyes following his strides back and forth in front of the headlights… the hurt confusion that is burning in my soul doesn’t last long. I opened the door slowly and got out. My hand gripes the outside handle of the door for support. The two months of pain sears through me.

“How dare you.” I don’t recognize my voice. It was low, heartless and dripped with accusation. “How DARE you yell at me!” It was barely a whisper but in the cold silent night around us, I knew he could hear me. Refusing to look at me, he stops pacing. “Two months,” I fumed, “Nicolas, it’s been two months since you’ve spoken to me … NO! Since you’ve even looked my way.” I could hear my calm voice start to give way to a screech, “NOW THIS? YOU can’t even bare to look at me NOW. Do you think I care how HARD it was for you? YOU? You who barely said three words to me at the beginning of school. You … who ignored me time and time again. You who TRICKED me into the Gym and WATCHED while they hurt me. You … who started going out with that… that … snake! How awesome do you think I felt when I found you practically screwing that BITCH near the bathrooms tonight. You were sucking her face off.” I couldn’t say her name. I’d tear the car handle off his door if I did. “And then, of all the IDIOTIC excuses you could have possibly come up with you tell me, and I quote – ‘You’re not fine. I know that. But, believe me, it’s much better this way.’ You fucking asshole.” I scream, “HOW IS THIS BETTER?” I wanted to hit something. I wanted to hit him.

Instead I slam the door and stomp over to him. I know he won’t care, but the truth was going to come out anyway. I would not hide anymore. Not from him. Not from anyone. I ignore the pained look in his eyes. He had no right to feel any pain. I spit straight into his face, “You’re right Nicolas, I am not fine. I have never been more miserable. Ever since that night you lied to me and Laurie and YOUR friends… yes Nicolas… YOUR FRIENDS hurt me I have been racking my brain as to why you HATE ME so much. If it wasn’t for the twins … and Rich,” I heard him growl at the name. Good. “Yes, Nicolas … I don’t know what Rich was thinking tonight but, if it hadn’t been for Rich and MY friends, I would have spent this evening like last night and every night before that. I would have sat in my garden alone. I would finished all my homework and ran ten miles in the freezing cold … alone. Then, so that Mel wouldn’t be able to see or hear, I’d drown my tears for the day in a blazing hot shower. I would come out of the bathroom, tired but presentable. I would have made dinner for Mel and myself without eating any of it. Then, I would have gone up to my room and cried myself to sleep thinking … no … KNOWING … that you didn’t care about me anymore. That you hated me. That you’d rather have Laurie’s arms snaked around you than give … one … look in my direction. What the fuck is wrong with you.” Like a child, I wanted to pound his chest with my fists but all my energy was spent.

He doesn’t say anything and my body slumps. My eyes blur a little … again. I thought I could feel the world slip from under me. The last two months of sleepless nights decided to rush at me at this vulnerable moment. I turn to walk back to the car.

“Just take me home.” I whisper weakly.

Shift by Pili Yarusi – DREAM – Chapter 9

Chapter 9 – Dream

The first part of my dream is strange. I am the garbage man who found the twins in that little town on the outskirts of Zhejiang. I open the lid and throw the papers and trash aside. The litter floats noiselessly to the ground, like feathers in a windless space. I reach to the bottom but there is nothing there. I hear laughter up ahead and see two children playing in the street. The children are blurry. They look as if they are wearing fur coats. As I get closer I do not find children.

They stop playing and two pairs of grey eyes stare at me. Grey eyes of wolf cubs.

The dream changes, becoming dangerously familiar. I am flying. Soaring over the mountainous hills of concrete and steel that made the jungle I dwell in. I left my nest in search of someone. I head toward the warming breezes of the lush city jungle.

As grey turns to green I hear a boys’ voice screaming into the air. I could not understand what he was saying but he was in pain. I fly toward the wrenching sound and find myself in a small clearing. The boy is crouched in the middle. The air is shimmering around him.

We aren’t alone. Others are watching from the edge of the clearing. I hear the ground shake and the air explode. I turn my attention back to the boy, but he is no longer there. In his place a large tiger remains. The tiger looks up in my direction and makes to run.

As I perch on a nearby oak, I find that the crowd that had gathered around has altered too. There are no humans left. Five large bears split up and circle the outside perimeter. There are now about ten other birds. I see eagles and hawks fly overhead. A golden eagle drifts down and lands on my branch. She cocks her head at me. But the snakes steal my attention as they slither up tree trunks to get a better view. Three large cats draw near the tiger. One lioness steps forward and the tiger whines and growls. The tiger drops under the lioness stare. As the lioness draws nearer the air begins to shimmer again.

The golden eagle next to me nudges me with her beak.

I wake up.

***

“Last night the rules were broken by a few of your classmates. This will not be tolerated. Most of the persons involved have been suspended and their records will be marked. We know that there were a few witnesses who are located in the College and they have also been dealt with. Again. I stress that rule breaking, bullying and hurting your fellow classmates will not be tolerated.” Mr. Stiller sits down at his desk. “You all will use this time to work on your projects and reflect on your positive contribution to our society.”

I look at Mr. Stiller and he nods.

“So… I heard you had a run in with the snake. OUCH!” Rich reaches down to grab what I could only assume was his foot. Jennifer gives him a scathing glare. “Oww … that hurt! What did I say? What? I thought everyone knew.”

My face flashes warmly as I look around the class. Most students were working on the semester project but I notice that quite a few seemed to be checking out my table regularly. Did the whole school know what happened last night? I bury my head in my arms. I want to dissolve into the desk.

“Geez… Rich! Use a little tact!” The sound of metal scrapes against the floor as Jennifer pulls out her seat. “You two,” The rich English lilt of Jennifer’s voice is harsh, “go work on the computer or something.” The two younger boys rush away from the table. Jennifer sits next to me.

“Julia … it’s okay. Rich is just being a prick.” Jennifer pats my back, a little hard and awkwardly. I look up. Now all faces in the class were decidedly turned away from my direction. I shouldn’t have come to school today.

I look toward the front of the class. Alison and Caleb are sitting alone. Alison said Laurie would be in trouble but I didn’t realize they would all get in trouble. I meet Alison and Caleb’s stoic gazes. Caleb shifts in his seat a little, looking slightly uncomfortable. “The rules were broken by all of them. I spoke with Mr. Stiller and he said that they’ll be gone at least a week.”

“Hey! I warned you! Didn’t I? I told you to stay away from her.” I pick my head up off the desk and look up at Rich. His expression softens. “Crap… I’m being a dick, ain’t I? Shoot. Okay…” Rich takes a deep breath, “Let me try this again…”

“Why don’t you just shut it and we’ll all pretend you didn’t mention anything?” Jennifer’s hand grips my shoulder. I know she is trying to be comforting but if I let this go on, my back would be a series of black and blue bruises. Soothing back rubs were not Jennifer’s specialty. I touch her hand and try for a smile.

“Aw, Jen … can’t I just apologize.” Rich turns back to me, his brown eyes worried, “Look, that came out all wrong. I mean … when Caleb told me what happened…”

Astonished, I find my voice, “Caleb told you? How?” My head tilts towards the back of the room again. Now Caleb was looking down and Alison was furious. It looks like she is arguing with him. It was funny, kinda, because Caleb, from what I knew of him, didn’t talk.

“Um …well … he e-mailed me?” The last few words came out sounding more like a question.

“So … what? Am I a topic of discussion of some blog?” Unfortunately my anger just fueled my tear ducts. The waterworks were starting again. I look down at the desk and I blink them back.

“Just shut it already Richard! Why don’t you bugger off!” Jennifer seethes.

Grunting and stomping ensues as Rich goes away.

“Thanks Jen. I don’t know if I could have dealt with him.”

“Rich is just a big teddy bear once you know how to deal with him.” Jen looks at me intently, as if trying to gauge what to say next. “I was just wondering if you slept okay last night. I mean, what you went though… I could have clawed Laurie’s eyes out if it was allowed!”

“Ah… that’s okay… no need to claw anyone. I slept fine. Alison stayed with me.”

“Did you… shit, I might get in trouble for this… did you dream about anything?”

What a strange question. “Yeah. I dreamt about flying to Central Park and a bunch of animals. It was weird. I hate flying and heights and I’ve been having a lot of animal dreams lately.”

Jennifer almost jumps out of her seat, she’s so excited. “I knew it! You’re a Dreamer!”

“A what?”

Jennifer giggles, “I don’t know how you can do it now, without graduating, but…”

“Hi!!!” Alison smiles at me, interrupting what Jennifer was about to say. “You want to join us for lunch period? We usually grab our lunches and eat outside in the courtyard.”

“Sure! Of course!” I smile at Alison warmly and turn back to Jennifer but she is looking at Caleb who is shaking his head. “Jen, you were saying something about dreams…”

“Oh that? Oh don’t bother with me. Sometimes my brain goes cuckoo and I don’t know when to stop talking. I’ll see you at lunch, ‘kay?” And with that she hurries out of the room just as the bell rings.

“What was that?” I look to Alison. “She was saying some stuff about dreams. Whatʻs she talking about?”

Alison looks like she has a major headache. “Look, Julia… There is so much I want to tell you. And I… WE,” She looks at Caleb, “Can’t say anything.”

“The rules?” I ask.

“Yup… you’d better get used to them now.”

***

The entire week was a miracle in comparison to the few weeks of pain. I found myself laughing again, loving life again. It felt good to have such awesome friends in Alison, Caleb and Jennifer. Alison and Caleb joined up on the same table during study hall. It was a tight fit but I finally felt like I’d found some real friends. Even Richard wasn’t so bad.

Then, they came back.

It’s Monday morning and Laurie, Cami, Sam and Nicolas are at their front desk like nothing ever happened except that Nicolas looks different. I didn’t want to look but I couldn’t help it. For lack of a better explanation … he seems more defined.

The worst part is, Nicolas is even worst now then when he was just simply ignoring me. All through class I’ll catch him looking at me. I can’t read the expression there. Sometimes his face is a complete blank. Sometimes I see this pitiful pleading in his eyes. Sometimes I just see abject contempt. The worst is when he seems to be on the verge of saying something to me, anything would be nice, but he either gets distracted or thinks better of it and doesn’t say anything at all.

No. Actually, the worst part is, Laurie is still wrapped around him.

Can’t go there.

“You know what would probably piss him off?”

“What?” Rich caught me staring at the front of the room again.

“There is the Fall Dance coming up…and…”

The look on my face stops him. Was this boy serious? “No. Rich I am not going to a dance.”

“Hear me out! We could go together just as pay back. Come on Julia, I ain’t that bad!” Rich looks at me shyly, stumbling on his words.

“Oh … um … Rich…” Is Rich really asking me to go to a dance with him? I don’t know what else to say. I don’t have any experience with this sort of thing.

“Hey I know you’re sort of hung up on that clown over there and I really don’t know why after what he did to you. I don’t know what you or Laurie see in him but I figure we could kill two birds with one stone. I could get back at Laurie for leaving me for your man.” Rich lets a little pleading color his usually gruff voice.

“He’s not my ‘man’!” My cheeks heat up. “I am not hung up on him. He’s so different now…” I ramble.

“Whatever.” Rich turns back to the science project. “I just thought it might be fun.” He looks up as Laurie’s throaty giggled fills the room. My gaze follows his to the front corner of the class. Her fingers are intertwined in his golden hair. I feel my insides sizzle. I want to throw up.

“Maybe I’ll see you there.” I meet Rich’s eyes for a moment. He smiles. The bell rings.

As Sam, Cami, Laurie and Nicolas approach, Rich takes out a sheet of paper from his notebook and makes a huge show of giving me his number. Giggling, I blush at his audacity. Alison and Caleb look a little concerned but it’s a fleeting look.

Rich stands up right in front of Laurie and Nicolas, blocking their way. “So … give me a call.” He’s speaking a little too loudly to me. “Alison and Caleb are getting a ride from Jen. We could go with them … or we could take my car.” I give Rich the biggest smile I can muster as he hands me his number. Alison’s eyes bulged a little. She looks like there is something she wants to tell me. Cami’s mouth falls open and Sam looks as stoic as usual. Out of the corner of my eyes I try to read Laurie’s face. She’s looking straight at me, a sinister smile painted on her face. My smile disintegrates.

Was there something about Rich that I didn’t know about?

I slide my gaze towards Nicolas. There was something that flickers in his vacant eyes. Something close to disapproval. Must have been just my imagination.

Rich turns sharply and barrels into Nicolas and Sam. “Oh, dudes … sorry ‘bout that.” He smirks, “See yah later Julia.” Rich gives me a little wink.

I let another small giggle slip. For a brute, he wasn’t a bad guy.

Sam gets up in Rich’s face. “What bro?” Rich laughs in Sam’s face. Both guys are huge and the stare down lasts a few seconds until Sam pushes past him. “At least I’m still not following Laurie like some whipped puppy.” Sam looks back at Rich briefly, his face full of hate. He turns back towards the door and almost takes it off the hinges as he exits.

Laurie pulls Nicolas past our table. Now Nicolas looks straight at me. I turn away, memories of the night he let Laurie bully me… I need to remember that he is not my friend. He’s not my Nicky. I can feel his eyes try to bore into the back of my head. As much as I dread the thought of going to the dance, I am grateful to Rich. Maybe this is exactly what I needed to move past.

I turn to Alison and Caleb. Caleb was shaking his head and Alison let her tongue click in her mouth.

“What? Come on Alison! Spill it! You’re looking at me like I just signed up for kitchen duty. What’s up?” Exasperated, I really didn’t know what to expect from my new friends and I could really use Alison’s help right now. I had even less experience with boys.

“Are you sure you want to go with Rich? He’s kind of … ah. I’ve heard that he can sometimes lose his temper…” She pauses, choosing her words carefully. There was something she didn’t want to or couldn’t tell me.

“Alison!!!” Her silence was killing me.

She seemed to be playing with opposing comments in her head. Finally, “Well, I guess it’ll be fine as long as you’re with us. It’s just that Laurie used to tell me some awful things about him.”

“Laurie? Then they were probably all lies.” I grimaced, “What’s he going to do to me? Dance me to death? Also, I didn’t say I’d go with him … just that I’d meet him there.”

“Well then … I guess it’s set.” Alison brightens up. “We’ll all go together.” Caleb shrugs and focuses back on his video game.

We meet up with Jen after class. She gives me the same startled look when I tell her that Rich was coming with us as my ‘sort of’ date. But was also appeased when I tell her that we’d meet him there.

Jen laughs, “So Caleb … how about it? You wanna go with me?” Caleb blushes and nods furiously.

“Aw … Jen … why’d you have to go and do that for? Now I gotta find a date.” Alison whines. They all laugh and saunter off in the direction of her car. “You coming?”

***

Jennifer and Alison kidnap me. They’d set it up with my Aunt.

“You…” Alison began.

“… and your room…” Jennifer injects.

“Are in serious need of a makeover.” Alison finishes.

I grab my old alarm clock off my bed stand. It reads 7:02 am. I toss it back onto my nightstand, and missed. I didn’t care though, I was tired and the newest round of nightmares was not helping. I stuff my head back into my pillow. The dance was tomorrow night and I just wanted to hide. Alison and Jen had other plans.

“No,” I moan as they rip the covers off me.

They both laugh. Between my abject refusal to get out of bed, my tattered pajamas and the slight whimper that sounds out of my mouth; I admit that I was laughable. I throw a pillow at both of them. Alison sidesteps and Jen catches it before it has a chance to hit its intended target.

They sit on my bed. Alison places her hand on my head. “Look, we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way. Either way we are not going away.”

“Let’s do it the hard way!” Jen laughs gleefully.

I didn’t want to imagine what ‘the hard way’ includes in Jen’s imagination. I flop over.

“At least let me take a shower.” I concede.

I step into the hot stream of water. I’m grateful … really I am. It feels awesome to have friends I can trust, people who care. Alison and Jen had quickly become close to me. I felt like I could tell them anything. Caleb, though a silent presence, was a much needed support. Even Rich … I cringe a little. Was I making a mistake by going ‘out’ with him to this dance? I thought he was cute, a little rough around the edges, but cute. It wasn’t even like that though. I was meeting him there. I didn’t want to lead him on but he did seem to like me. It was nice to be liked. He made me feel strange though. Every time he looked at me it seemed as if he was fighting something inside him. It was a funny thought, but he looked hungry.

I put that aside. Although we hadn’t gotten off to an amazing start in the beginning, Rich was filling a small part of the gaping hole that had taken over my being since the beginning of school. A flash of him hitting my back to save me from choking entered my memory. His toothy smile at the beginning of school. The water was scalding hot but I could feel a small blush steal across my cheeks anyway. He’d always been nice.

He was paying more attention to me because Laurie had slighted him and the attention was welcome. He’d begun to hang out with Caleb more instead of Sam, bringing himself closer to Jen, Alison and myself. Rich started to eat lunch with us in the courtyard instead of inside with Laurie and her cronies. Rich was a good guy once you got past his initial rudeness.

Maybe this wasn’t a mistake. Maybe it would be a little fun. My stomach did a little turn. It was my first real High School Dance.

I would turn into a prune if I didn’t get out of the shower soon. I shut off the water and step out. I give my teeth a fast but thorough cleaning and throw my hair into a quick pony tail. The ripped jeans and tank I had dragged out of my drawers before jumping into the bathroom looked ragged. They’re too big on me. I lost weight. I wipe the mirror. The girl looking back at me through the mist looks dejected. Her eyes, normally a kaleidoscope of color, had taken on a flat brown tone. There is a sickly olive hue to her skin, skin in bad need of a tan. Faint bluish circles rounded her eyes. She needs to get a life, I think. She needs a fresh start. I smile. The girl in the mirror smiles back.

There is a pounding at the door before it flies open. Jen coughs as the steam rushes out to greet her.

“Geez … it’s a sauna in here! Come on,” As she grabs my hand and before she pulls me out, I see the reflection of my eyes in the mirror. They’re bright green. I can feel the beginnings of a really good day begin to dawn. I giggle and let Jen drag me out of the bathroom.

“I thought you were going to stay in there forever,” Alison complained, “so we started without you.”

I look around my room, my mouth falling wide open.

“Your Aunt said you’d kill us if we attacked your closet, but we figured the rest was up for a turn around. Oh, and the bed is a present from your aunt. She said it was about time that you got rid of that old one. Too small and lumpy, she said. How long did you have that thing?”

I didn’t really hear everything that Jen was yammering on about. I search my room. In the half-hour that it took me to clean myself up, Alison and Jen had rearranged my entire room. A queen had replaced my small twin sized bed, the frame was beautiful dark unfinished wood. It was pushed up against the western side of the house facing my balcony. The garish purple plastic blinds had been taken down from the wrap around windows on either side of the balcony doors. My plants had been moved outside to breathe, they needed it. For all intensive purposes, my room was really a clean slate. A fresh start.

Tears well up in my eyes.

“Oh god, not the waterworks.” disappointment falls over Jenʻs face, “You don’t like it. We could always put those ugly purple things back on your window.” She sulks over to the bed and pouts.

Alison glares in her direction and grabs my hand. “Honey, what is it? What’s wrong? Did we go too far? Jen’s right … if you don’t like it, we can put it all back.”

I sniffle. “It’s not that, its just … this is going to sound really dumb but … why are you being so nice to me. I mean, thank you, but why?” I wipe at my face.

Jen snorts in reply, “Do you want us to be mean?” She laughs as Alison guides me over to the bed. The plastic is still covering it. “I didn’t mean it like that. You’re a cool person. You kick butt in Gym. I don’t need much else in a friend.”

Alison shakes her head. “You know… I’m not so sure. Jen’s right, of course, you’re a good person.”

“I said cool”

“Whatever… I don’t know,” she pauses, choosing her words carefully, “it’s kind of like we’re sisters.” Alison looks away for a moment. “When we found you in the gym with Laurie and she was threatening you I saw how you stood up to her. It takes guts to stand up to that girl. I should know. Being the smallest person in our house has made me come up with ingenious ways of standing up to her. I know her. You don’t, but you were still strong enough to hold your ground,” Alison snorts, “I’ve known her forever and she wouldn’t have tried so hard if she didn’t like you too.”

“What?” My mind couldn’t wrap around that bit of information. Laurie? Like me? No way.

“Oh … never mind about that, I’m just rambling now. Anyway, like Jen said … you’re cool and you kick ass. You’re strong and you seemed to really need a friend.”

Jen pipes up, “And we just happened to be around. So if you like, we’d like to stick around for a bit longer.” She pokes me in the ribs.

I chuckle, “I just have to warn you though… I’ve never been very good at this friend stuff.” I pause, a little uncomfortable. Could I talk about it with them? Yes. I needed to let it out.

Alison and Jen looked at me patiently, I hesitate. “Nicky… Nicolas … was really the only real friend I ever had. We both got into a … situation a long time back. We’ve been friends since the fourth grade. Losing him … to Laurie … was like losing part of myself.” I was going to start rambling on but I see the way Jen’s eyes widened just a fraction at the mention of my situation. I pause. Laurie and Cami had mentioned a few times that there were stories going around school about me. If they knew anything and wanted to talk about it they would have to go first. I had told Alison a little about what had happened… but not the full extent. This was not a closet I was ready to clean out.

Breathe in. Seconds tick by. Alison smiles. “Sweetie. You can talk or not talk about whatever you want with us. Trust me when I say it is okay to have your own secrets.”

Breathe out. Okay. Good. Not going there. “So with Nicolas I found my forever friend. So I thought. I don’t know how to react anymore. But having you two here and Caleb … and even Rich,” I added absently, noting how Jen’s eyes scrunch up for a sec, “Wait … is there something about Rich that I should know?”

Alison looks at me apologetically.

“Caleb told me that you were planning to hook up with Rich at the Dance.” Jen’s concerned look intensified, “Is that true?”

“Hook up?! I’m not hooking up with anyone! What IS Caleb … some kind of gossip? I’ve never heard the boy speak! Oh god.” I hid my head in my hands. “Rich saw how much Nicolas was upsetting me and thought it might be fun to make him jealous. I think he just wants to pretend he’s with me to get back at Laurie though.” Jen still looked concerned. “Look, I know Rich is an animal, but I think I can handle him. He’s been really kind to me.”

“Yeah. We’ve noticed. He didn’t used to hang out around us until you showed up. He used to run around with Sam a lot but then Laurie got involved. I don’t know exactly what happened but there was this weird love triangle between those three. Whatever. Rich does seem much calmer now. Maybe …” Alison looks to Jen for a moment, obviously trying to decide what to say next.

Oh. Oh! “I’m so sorry!” I blush profusely. I couldn’t believe how blind I was. “Do you like him, Jen?”

“Oh … god no.” Jennifer chortles, “There was a moment last year where we might have hooked up but then Laurie got to him first and moment came and went. I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were getting yourself into. Rich has been known to lose his temper in the past.”

“Well, if he is controlling himself more … maybe it’ll be fun.” Alison smiles.

We three sat there for a moment. Jennifer was the first to jump up. “Geez, enough of this wimpy emotional crap!” She went to my wall of music and whistled, “Wow, you really like your music. I didn’t know people still collected CDʻs”

“I like to be able to hold something in my hands. It makes me feel like the music is tangible and not just a piece of information on my computer. A lot of the collection is my Mom’s. I even have vinyl and cassette tapes. You can borrow anything.”

“Really?” Jen eyes scan my collection covetously. “You got an empty box?”

Alison pinches her arm.

“Ouch … geez …” Jen tears herself from my music wall. “ Later … first your bedroom.”

Alison smiled, “So, what do you want to do to it.”

We spent the better part of the morning planning our attack. The bed my aunt had gotten me took up more space. I pushed it a bit more center, more in line with the balcony doors. From the bed I could see the tops of the trees and into the clouds. I marveled that I hadn’t ever thought to move it here before. The bed was incredibly comfortable. The frame was a work of art. Alison said that it was made from reclaimed wood. It had large branches that the designer had formed to encompass the bed. Jen came up with a great idea. We would extend the frame up into a canopy. I had no idea how we were going to accomplish this feat, but I put the fate of my room in their hands.

It felt amazing to absolutely trust people again. I smile and laugh easily with these girls. I felt happy.

The morning turns into early evening with a happy swoop. Any misgivings I had about my friendship with either of them were long forgotten. After shopping for new curtains … I find a sky blue that reminds me of … the sky. Lying to myself, it reminds me of something else. Someone else. Jen and Alison try to convince me that the soft lighter green curtains will be better. I win them over. I also pick up some muslin to hang around the canopy.

After, we go down to the fashion district. Jennifer knew someone down there that was dismantling a set from a fashion show. There was a forest of beautiful wood that was going to the chopper for mulch. Jen and I choose the best pieces while Alison disappeared.

We meet back at the truck. I try to look at what she disappeared to get.

“NO! No peeking!” I pout a bit and she gives in. “I got you something for the dance”

Shift by Pili Yarusi – Chapter 8 – Save

Chapter 8

I feel Alison’s small arms wrap around my waist. Like Caleb, she was much stronger than I’d thought. She and Caleb lead me toward the light. The halogen lights in the hallway on the other side of the gym doors were frightening bright. It was sterile and harsh in comparison to the dangerous gloom behind me. I stumble into the colder air of the hallway.

They take me to the student parking building. I walk in a daze. The only reason I can be propelled forward is because I’m being led. I think if they let me go, I’d curl myself into an unfeeling mass of flesh on the cold concrete. I feel more wet stuff fall out of my eyes. Alison murmurs something that is meant to relax me. I don’t hear it. The tears keep coming.

She lets go of my waist. My body slumps on one side. Caleb holds me closer. I barely help him, if at all, to hold myself up. I hear a beep and flashing lights of a small blue car in front of us. Alison is opening the passenger door. Caleb lifts me and places me into the car. I should ask how he carried me so effortlessly. It didn’t matter. I really don’t care anymore. I find the numbness, the all-encompassing numbness that is taking hold of my system is much better than the alternative. The alternative includes two bottomless holes of midnight. To think of them was to fall into them. So much better not to think. Much better to be numb. Caleb shuts the door.

Beyond the car door, a bird flies over head. A moment of silence. A voice, demanding. “How could she? How could they!?” It was a girls’ voice that was faintly recognizable. Her speech has a soothing English lilt to it. My mind wanders back into grey reality for a moment.

“Laurie doesn’t think. She lets her power go to her head.” Alison growls. “This is all my fault.”

“You can’t let yourself think that. You couldn’t have known that Laurie would move so fast … what a horrible girl she is. I knew Laurie was bent on the girl, but to try to force her to fight back, to frighten her so much that she’d Change. It’s astonishing.” I hear Caleb clear his throat loudly. The girl’s words trailed off or maybe I just stopped paying attention. “I will go home right away. I’ll make it there before she does…”

I hear two doors open and shut. I squeeze my eyes closed at the sound. I must have jumped. I looked at Alison and scream. There is a black wolf with beautiful grey eyes sitting in the drivers seat. I close my eyes again as two hands hold my shoulders firmly from behind. I look again. Alison is there, her eyes two worried pools of grey light.

I am going crazy. First the most popular students in school were trying to kill me and now my brain was recalling my worst and most recent nightmares, transposing them onto the very person who had stood up for me. I feel horrible. I should be thanking her but instead I let my nightmare mingle with the daily horror show of my life. I close my eyes again … letting myself drift back in to the nothing. It was so much easier here.

“Julia,” she let her voice seep into my unconscious state. Part of my brain wakes up. “I’m going to drop off Caleb and then I’ll take you home.” It wasn’t a question. She was only telling me out of courtesy. I feel Caleb’s hands steady me from the back seat. I didn’t realize I’d begun to tremble. I nod. I could feel the warmth of gratitude flow through my body. They saved me.

I try to put this overwhelming gratitude into words. I can’t speak. The words won’t come. I know if I said something now, everything would come out of me. I had dammed the flood of still stinging memories in the far reaches of my mind and I could not let them flow out yet. A rush of unanswered questions would overshadow my words of gratitude.

Alison seems to understand and smiles soberly. “Rest awhile. I’ll wake you when we get to your place.”

I nod again sluggishly wondering how she knows where I live. Again … it really didn’t matter. I shut my eyes against the flood.

When I open them again, after what feels like a second later, Alison is kneeling at my side with the passenger door open and is shaking me softly. The chilled autumn air sweeps into the car, startling me a bit. It takes a moment to get my bearings. We are in front of my building and this pretty girl shaking my shoulder had just saved me from something traumatic. That’s as far as I’d let myself remember. Denial was the best policy right now.

“We’re here. Come on, I’ll help you into your building.” Her voice is soothing and kind. I step out of the cocooned safety and warmth of the car. Blood rushes to my head in my effort to get up. I grip the edge of the car for support.

“Come on… Julia, you’re safe now.” Allison undoes my grip on the car with relative ease, “I’m not going to carry you and we can’t stay out here. You must be freezing. Let’s get you inside.”

I let her lead me up the stoop and to the front door. A man was just coming out. One of my Aunt’s tenants in the building next door, Patrick, paid his rent by doing odd jobs for my Aunt. He is locking up as Alison and I stumble up the granite stairs. He is gripping two large garbage bags and looks up with a relatively bored expression. Dropping the bags, “OH! Julia!!! Are you feeling OK?” Patrick runs over and lifts me from the other side. His southern drawl is pronounced.

No.

Alison answers before I can try to explain.

“Hi! I’m Alison!” Her voice belongs to the bright and shiny anime girl I had met that morning. Had it only been a few hours? Alison voice is hushed as she squeezes my hand. “Julia isn’t feeling very well… I think she’s coming down with the stomach flu.”

“Oh geez … well then, Alison, let’s get her on up. I don’t think her aunty is home yet.” Patrick props open the door for us with his left foot, his arm tending to my right elbow. “I’ll send some of my wife’s chicken soup with my son later tonight. That’ll fix her right up. She has this special ingredient, see? She uses lots of ginger! My wife’s’ mama…” He trails on.

Alison interrupts gently, “I’m sorry Mr. …”

“Just call me Patrick. They use to call me Mr. Delancey ‘round here but Julia came up to me and as bright as day when she and her mom, God rest her soul, moved in and called me by my first name … as if the little lady had named me. I’ve known Julia since…”

“Thank you, Patrick.” She used the same gentle voice as we enter the sitting room. It had a touch of finality that Patrick easily comprehends.

“I do hope you feel better, Julia. Alison, you must be a kind soul, taking care of her like this. Blessings on you!” The door eases shut. I could hear Patrick’s voice trail off. “Poor girl … ever since her mama died … Oh well, it’s good to know she has a friend again …”

I cringe inside. Did everyone know I was friendless?

I scan my living room. It looks the same as when I had left it this morning. Books are piled everywhere. I have an insane urge to curl up on my favorite armchair in the corner and lose myself in one of them. I look at Alison. She is still holding me up.

“Your room is up here.” Not a question. She was stating the fact for my benefit, just in case my mind wasn’t sound enough to remember where I had left my bedroom.

I nod. She leads.

My room looks the same also. Clean. Sterile.

The smell of my roses wafts in from the balcony with the cool evening breeze, bringing me back to the present. Nicky had planted them out there. The tears fall onto my cheeks. I had tried so hard to remove him from my life. How could I have forgotten the roses? I would pull those stupid flowers out tomorrow. I didn’t want a reminder. I didn’t want to feel…

“Julia?” Alison sat me down on my purple comforter. Everything blurs and as my head hit her shoulder I felt my eyes burn. The tears came and I let them. Huge raking sobs well up out of my heart and onto this strange girls shoulder. Nicky, the horrible school, Nicky, Laurie, Nicky and Laurie, the gym… I let it all out. I tell her everything from my Moms death, leaving out a few details like talking animals, to my splitting migraines. For the first time in weeks, I feel safe. I feel like I can let go. She puts her small arm around my shoulder.

After an eternity passed I slumped over, exhausted onto my pillow. “…And just before you came in Laurie showed everyone my bracelets like they were poisonous. Then everyone started to blur and Cami was coming at me with huge pliers. Shit… my life is some sort of horror story. I really wish I could understand why this is happening.”

“Julia…” I turn my head to face her. “I know we barely know each other, but would you like me to stay with you?”

“I’d like that.”

Alison smiles. “I might be able to explain something’s about what’s happening but not all…” She bites her lip, thinking for a bit.

I interrupt, “Please… anything. At this point, even if you pinched me and said this was all a bad dream, I’d believe you.”

Alison laughs sadly, “I wish it were that easy… Let’s get you cleaned up first.”

I look down at my clothes. They were wet and winkled. Was that blood? I must look like a mess. Alison gets up and makes a beeline for my bathroom. I hear the water begin to run. I take stock of my body. Wobbling, I stand up and pull my sweater off. It was ripped as was my blouse. My legs hurt. I sit back on my bed and see long nail marks on my calf as well as the slight yellowish beginnings of bruises blossoming. I bend over to get a closer look and immediately regret it. My ribs burn under the pressure. My eyes well up again. I usually didn’t crack under pain … but this was too much.

I look down. I see where they had held me. The bruising was going to be severe. I knew from experience that nothing was broken … but it still hurt. I feel my neck … yup, tender. The tears had begun again, silently. I look up through the flood and into the early evening sky. Too many lights in the city. The sky never really gets dark here. My heart feels dark, though. Dark, cracked, and broken.

Alison returns from the bathroom. I grab my blouse and wipe my face in it. I really need to pull myself together.

Alison wraps her arms around me again and I let her lead me to my bathroom. The bathtub was practically overflowing with purple bubbles. The room smells like gardenias. “You’ll feel a lot better after a bath. Get in there and soak! Call for me if you need anything. I’ll check in on you in five.” She walks out of the room, leaving the door slightly ajar. I don’t think she trusts me enough to be alone. Hell, I don’t trust myself to be alone.

I undress and step in to the flowery soup and stand there, letting the steam waft around me. It was slightly hot … and lovely. I slip my body into the scalding bouquet. I let the water burn away the pain in my body. It can’t do anything for my heart, but this was at least a start. My body melts into the sweet water. My mind begins to wander. I let it. The images of tonight’s ordeal take over. To make the images go away, I sink under the bubbles and into the water below. I hold my breath as Nicky’s stoic face slams into my heart. The strength of it catches my breath and I push up and out of the water, coughing and spurting bubbles.

I reach out for a towel and wipe my face. I realize that Alison must have handed me the towel. I finally got the soap out of my eyes and look up. “I can see the headline now, ‘Girl commits suicide in tub of bubbles’. Pathetic huh?” I laugh weakly and Alison’s concerned look breaks into a smile.

“No,” she laughs, “It is not pathetic. More like, it is not worth it.” She puts the toilet cover down and sits. “Nothing and no one is worth that.” She gives me an appraising look and shakes her head. “You shouldn’t have had to go through tonight … I’m sorry.”

“What? Why should you be sorry?” I sit up a little, my head barely bobs over the cascading bubbles. “Thank you for getting me out of there. If you hadn’t, I don’t know what would have happened.” My voice is a little cracked but I hope that she could hear the sincerity behind it. “I don’t want to think about what would have happened if you hadn’t showed up to save me.”

I don’t know if it’s the healing warmth of the bubble bath or the fact that I just need to talk so I confide more in Alison. “I thought I could save him. I thought that she had had some powerful hold on him and that he was reaching for me. I am… I was his best friend.”

Alison just peers at me through her messy bangs.

“Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that we took care of one another. I missed him so much. Ever since he met her he’s been different. He won’t talk to me. No, worst than that, he’s gone out of his way to ignore me. I’ve been tearing myself apart trying to come up with a reason for his behavior and the only solution I could come up with was that he was tired of me. Nicolas just wants someone prettier, more popular and more willing to do things that couples do. We were never a couple. I always thought we were more than just that. This is going to sound really cheesy but I thought we were meant to be together forever.” A heat that had nothing to do with the water temperature sears my face. I look away. I hadn’t meant to say so much. I’d never acknowledged my feelings out loud to anyone before … not even to myself. I dunk my head under the water again.

When I come back up a second later and after wiping the bubbles off my face I let out a weak laugh, “Sorry, I usually don’t talk this much and I didn’t realize that I had so much to say. I just miss having someone to talk to. I used to tell Nicolas everything. Seriously everything. Even the female bits that girls aren’t supposed to share with guys. I never had another friend, we didn’t need anyone else. Am I making any sense?”

Alison muses, “That’s how it is with me and my brother. So I understand. If anyone took my brother away, I’d be devastated too.”

I shake my head, the tears were beginning to well up as the realization hit me. “He was more than my brother and I wish someone had just taken him away from me. Alison, he left of his own will. He’s the one that tricked me into coming to the gym tonight.”

“Julia, this wasn’t Nicolas’ fault…”

“Yes, it was. Nicolas just stood there, he gave me up to Laurie. He did it and if it wasn’t for you… I… I don’t know what would have happened.” The tears were flowing freely again.

“Don’t thank me just yet. I know Laurie and she should not have done that. She was out of line but she couldn’t have hurt you.”

I snorted. “She didn’t need to cause me anymore physical pain to hurt me. She did enough.”

Alison shakes her head, “You don’t understand … she is dependent upon her subjects … ah … boyfriends. She…” I notice that Alison began to choose her words carefully here, “She has a knack for making people feel … um…”

“Drained? Scared? I personally feel like I’m falling in to a black abyss.” My voice raises a little higher, “Other times it feels like she wants to take over. Like she wants to make me do things that I don’t want to do. Most of the time it just feels like she’s sucking the life out of me.”

I see a flash of anger on Alison’s face but before I can comment further, she interrupts me. “There are things about Laurie that…” Alison falters, “I don’t even know where to begin…” Alison looks away abruptly. “Just finish up here and we’ll talk when you get out.” She closes the door firmly behind her leaving me staring at the white paint.

I drain the bathtub and take a quick shower to wash my hair and rinse the suds out. It takes all of ten minutes to accomplish this but it seems like forever. I have a million questions and Alison was waiting outside to answer them. I pull on a clean T-shirt and sweat pants and wrap a fresh towel around my hair. I didn’t dare look at myself in the mirror. I knew all I’d see was my red and puffy face. I didn’t want to see the bruises that were showing up on my neck and arms. I wanted answers and I had a feeing that Alison had a few.

I walk out of the steaming bathroom. Alison was sitting cross-legged on my bed hunched over my copy of Dracula.

She didn’t look up but said in an irritated voice, “I hate how wolves are depicted in this book… and the movie. As if wolves needed another reason to be hated. That Lucy girl was a certifiable flirt that probably enticed the wolf… AND … wolves are NOT vampires. What a crazy idea.” Alison looked up then, her grey eyes flashing. “A real wolf would have either eaten the mortal or left the stinking mortal alone, either way … Lucy would not have turned in to a vampire. What rubbish.” She flings the book neatly onto my dresser. “You look so much better!” She pats the area next to her. “You smell better too.”

I laugh a little.

“You might want to sit down for this one.”

My stomach plummets into my intestines making my entire abdomen clench. What else could happen tonight? I sit.

“Laurie is my sister.”

The blood drains from my face and I want to throw Alison, my savior, out of my room … out of my house. Instead, my jaw drops and I stare at her, unbelieving.

She laughs a little which knocks some sense back into me. This must be a joke. It really wasn’t funny but I try for a smile anyway. There was no way that Alison and Caleb could be related to that snake. They didn’t look anything like Laurie.

“You’re joking, right?” I choke.

Alison smiles, “Afraid not. You should see your face. You look like you can’t decide whether to throw me out or pity me. I told you I knew Laurie a lot better than you thought.”

“But … wait … you look nothing alike! You are nothing alike!” I was reaching for anything that would absolve the situation.

“Well … we’re not blood, but we might as well be. We’re all adopted. Jennifer, Caleb and I, Sam and Laurie.”

I breathe easier, “So you’re not really related.”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I guess not.” I relax a bit. Of course, it doesn’t matter if they are but I really could not see Alison being tied to that girl.

“So how…”

“How did we all become family? Jennifer was the first. Don’t know much except that she was found in a church in a small town off San Antonio. She tried to locate information about her birth parents but everything has come up as a dead end.

“Laurie was the second. She was adopted in India. Her parents both died leaving Laurie alone at the age of three. Our father said she had problems from the start. It was hard enough to find parents for orphans but Laurie made it harder. She wouldn’t let anyone touch her and if they did, she’d bite them. People thought she was cursed, swore that she’d poison all those who touched her. So, she lived in the orphanage until a young American professor and his daughter came in to help the hospital. There is more to the story but I’ve never heard the whole thing. Jennifer said that Laurie bit the professor once and he just laughed at her. He sucked at the bite, spit and walked away from the fuming child. The four year old Laurie stomped off after the professor grabbed his hand and took him in front of her nurse and told her nurse that she wanted to adopt him.”

I laugh. “Don’t you mean the she wanted him to adopt her?” Thinking about a younger version of Laurie makes her a little less menacing.

“No, Laurie thought it worked the other way around. I guess she figured that since she’d lost her real parents, she should be able to decide who her new parents were going to be. She has issues with ownership. That’s why she and Jennifer don’t get along. She’s jealous of Jennifer because she was chosen first. That’s why she’s jealous of you too.”

“Me?” I think of Laurie. “Her perfect complexion, her statuesque figure and her ability to make a person crumble with just a glance … She has no reason to be jealous of me.”

Alison laughs, “She has every reason to be jealous of you. Tonight should have proved it to you. Did she by any chance ask you to join her? To be her friend?”

“Sort of.” I remember Laurie gripping my face with her talons:

“… I just need to push her a bit more.” She chuckles.

“You know the rules… I thought we were just playing…” Cami’s voice is an uncertain growl.

They weren’t making any sense. I feel utterly powerless. I could only think about getting out of here.   

Laurie grips harder, her face becoming frenzied. “You all won’t tell anyone! This little one,” she turns her attention back to me, “we’re going to become best friends. Aren’t we Julia? Be my friend, Julia. It’s an easy choice, once you make it. I see the power in you. I can help you achieve that power. Just let me IN!” She unleashes her full gaze into mine. 

I tremble as I recall the memory for Alison.

Alison growls and I back up just a bit. Alison sees my reaction. “Sorry. It’s just, Laurie should not have done that. She went way too far. Well, at least she won’t be bothering you in school for a little while.”

It was too much to hope for. “Why?”

“As much as the professor loves us all as his children, even he cannot look away when the Law is broken. Laurie could have gotten into much more trouble if it had worked but … she failed. Unfortunately for her, she’ll be suspended for at least a week, amongst other things…” Alison’s voice trails off.

“If what had worked, exactly.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you … everything.” I was about to interrupt but she steamrolls on, “No, let me finish. I’ve Graduated, so has Laurie and the rest of my family including her friends that were in the gym with you. What Laurie was trying to do is against the rules. She was trying to see if she could get you to Graduate earlier.”

“What? How could she…”

“You won’t understand until you do. I know I’m being cryptic but I can’t say anything else except that the fact that you fought Laurie off … well, that took guts. I don’t think I could have done that before I’d Graduated.”

I was about to push for more information but the look on Alison’s face was stoic. I wasn’t going to get anything else out of her on that subject. “You can’t tell me anything else?”

“Not now.”

I rub my face with both my hands in frustration. My bracelets clink together. Images of tonight cut though me.

“This is why we can’t touch her.”

My bracelets shine in the spotlight of the gym.

“Holy shit.” Sam lets go of me and backs away. “No wonder it burns to just touch her.”

“What the… What?” Cami looks at me with amazement, “Are you crazy!”

“Sam!” Laurie barks his name and I feel Sam’s hands grip my shirt, careful not to touch my skin.

“I saw those things on your wrist earlier today. I can’t imagine what you are thinking wearing them. But you don’t know, do you? You don’t know that all silver is banned from this school. You ARE as dangerous and as naive as they are all saying.”

I hold my wrists up. “What about these? Laurie and the others said they were poison. Sam said he could hardly touch me.”

“Those… yeh… silver. Another thing that’s hard to explain. I’m not sure why you’re allowed to wear those. For many reasons, if you graduate, you are not allowed to have silver in your possession.” I could tell Alison was trying to explain her way around this. So I patiently waited until she found the words. “You really shouldnʻt even be able to wear those bracelets. Don’t they hurt?”

“ Iʻve worn them since I was a kid.”

“Wow… really?”

“…And if they’re poisonous, why can you and Caleb touch me?”

Alison has a weird smug look, “Silver doesn’t affect people like us. We’re immune.” One of her eyebrows disappears up into her bangs. “Maybe you are too?”

“Immune… I didn’t know silver was poisonous at all… why…” I didn’t get to finish.

“Enough questions. I’ve already said too much. I don’t want to get into trouble and I am already treading a fine line right now.”

“One more question? Please?”

“I might not be able to answer.”

I guess I had to accept that but something had just occurred to me. “If you and your family as well as Cami have all graduated… what are you all still doing in High School?”

Alison looks slightly confused, “I… you know what… I don’t really know.”

“OOOOoookay. Fine. You won’t answer any more questions.” I sulk off the bed towards my closet.

“Julia, don’t be like that. I’d tell you if I could but…”

“I know … the Rules.” I reach into the Nicolas Box and take out a pink bag. I throw it to Alison who caught it with one hand.

“What’s this?” She turns the pink flannel bag in her small hands.

“Pajamas. You don’t think I’d let you go home alone now? I may be distraught, crazy and poisonous, but I’m not stupid. It’s too late for you to drive home and I think I’ll lose my mind if I stay here alone tonight.”

Alison scrunches her nose. “These probably won’t fit.”

“They will. I got that a few Christmas’ ago as a gag. The person who gave it to me knew I couldn’t stand pink and I never wore it. You can keep it if you want.” I think she understands my drift as she bounces into the bathroom.

I fall back on to the bed. I fix the pillows. Mochi jumps onto the bed and gives the air a sniff. Petting her furry little head and I try to read … anything to keep my mind occupied. I was serious when I told Alison I might lose my mind. Talking with her had calmed me, but I could still feel the nothingness threaten to take over again. I was about to fluff the pillows one more time, but Alison bounces out of the bathroom and flops onto my bed sending all the pillows flying.

Mochi goes berserk. She flies off the bed and hisses at Alison before darting out of my bedroom door.

We laugh. It was easy to laugh around Alison. She makes me feel at ease. “Sorry, I don’t have much luck around cats.”

“That’s okay. Mochi doesn’t really like anyone,” I chuckle. “So … what about you? Do you mind if I ask how did you and Caleb get adopted?”

Alison flips her pink hair out of her face. “That … is an interesting and long story.” She yawns, which made me yawn and we both laugh. Again. I could get used to this laughing thing. “We should get some sleep. We still need to make it to school tomorrow.”

“Come on … you can t give me any more details on my death-defying escape from the clutches of the evil Laurie, so… tell me a story”

“Oh, okay then!” Alison smiles, “youʻll have to imagine it from the perspective of the man who found us. Caleb and I were found in the eastern provence of Zhejiang…”

The garbage man grabbed the can outside the  rundown and abandoned shack as he always did. There seemed to be more trash inside it as of late, though no one lived in the dwelling. He, as always, would shrug his shoulders. At least the misfits around here had enough decency to throw their trash into a bin instead of the street.  

Today was different. He lifted the bin and could feel something shake inside it. He figured that it was just a stray cat and that it was best to just throw the rotten thing into the truck. He was about toss the trash, and the rotten cat into the back when he heard a babbling. Like talking but in another language. Almost like a couple of puppies. He’d never had a puppy before but if they could talk … that’s what he’d imagine they would sound like. A couple of puppies were a lot more valuable then some rotten cats. He set the trash bin on the pavement. The papers rustled at the top, shaking from the unknown force below it. The garbage man tentatively began to take garbage out of the bin. He was careful to throw the waste into the back of his truck. He didn’t want to litter.  

He’d taken out at least half of the trash that was there. Oddly enough, it was all newspaper as if someone was packing something fragile. His dirty gloves brushed something soft.  

A pink blanket.  

“Now, why would someone throw away a perfectly good blanket,” he grumbled softly. It was still early in the morning and he didn’t want to wake the townsfolk. The strange cooing got louder. He started to take off his gloves but thought better of it. What if these are rabid puppies, he shuddered. He did not want to get bitten. He moved the blanket aside and gasped.

There were two babies at the bottom. The cooing sounds were coming from the larger of the two whose body seemed to be wrapped around the smaller who was whimpering like the pup the garbage man thought he’d heard. Neither was crying. They both looked up. Their heads turned up towards the garbage man at the same time. The startlingly grey eyes, very rare in China, looked up into the dirt creased face of the garbage man. The larger baby smiled, as if to say, “What took you so long?” The baby raised one bubble gum pink hand towards the garbage man. The other just stared for a moment into its saviors eyes and turned back to its sibling.

The garbage man shook his gloves off in a hurry. He tossed the remaining newspaper on to the black pavement and enveloped the babies into his strong arms.  

They still did not cry. He knew there was something different about these infants as he drove to them to the nearest temple. He’d found a clean box to put them into. They were strapped into the passenger seat. He stared into their grey eyes again. He’d never been a superstitious man but he could swear that those babies could see him, hear his thoughts even.  

“Hey, babies,” he murmured in gentle Mandarin, “are you good luck babies?” He stared into the bigger baby’s face. He laughed to himself. Now he was just being silly. He looked back. Both babies were smiling at him.”

Shift by Pili Yarusi – Chapter 7 – Friendship

Chapter 7 – Friendship

I walk out of the locker room feeling something close to happiness. I’d taught myself not to hope but the feeling was creeping on me. Hope. The hope of friendship. The hope of being able to hang out with someone after school instead of being alone.

Alone.

Now that was a feeling I was used to. Even now it threatened the little bit of sunshine in my world. Alone. I was all alone in this terrible school. The biting voice of self doubt tries to move back in to secure its place in my mind.

Not anymore. A little voice fights for me, it has a girlish slight Chinese accent.

I smile. I have friends now. Maybe I could find Allison. See if she wanted to sit with me for lunch.

I practically skip to my locker. It was too late now; I was letting the happiness and hope infect me. It lightens my step and made me feel that, perhaps for the first time this school year, I belong.

I come to a complete stop. Someone bumps into me from behind. I hardly hear or feel them. Maybe if I had been paying closer attention to where I was going I might have avoided this. I would avoided my locker all together, found a safe little corner in which to hide myself until she left.

Laurie is waiting at my locker. She leans lazily beside it, her black nails scratching up against the painted green metal.

I turn around immediately to run away.

“Hey Julia.” I could have sworn she’d been at least ten feet away but now she was right next to me, whispering in my ear. I spin around. She is still at my locker, right where I’d seen her. How’d she throw her voice so far? She smirks.

I might as well face her. If I was going to get over this and take my life back I neded to do this. I walk up to her. She slides in front of my locker, blocking the lock. “Ah, Julia … just the little bird I wanted to catch … I’m angry at you again.”

I swallow. At first glance she didn’t look angry but her deceptively warm smile flashes in the bright halogen in the hallway revealing a row of sharp white teeth. How did that old children’s story go? Better to eat you with my dear. I look away. What had I done now? I’d stayed away from her. I’d stayed away from her boyfriend. I’d disappeared over the last few weeks.

“Do you know why?” She took out a smooth black phone from her skirt pocket, Nicolas’ iPhone.

I cringe but I found my voice. “Look, Laurie, I sent those messages ages ago and I haven’t called in weeks. I really don’t want any trouble…” I try to reach around her to get into my locker. She plants herself firmly and grabs my shirt sleeve with her free hand. Her nails dig in.

I bite back the yelp that wants to sound out of my mouth. I would not give her the pleasure of seeing me in pain, again.

“You’re so silly, I got rid of those long ago … so pathetic. I’m angry about these.” She pushes the screen in front of my face. There on the screen were pictures … of me. Recent pictures. In study hall, reading my worn copy of Dracula. In gym, running. A few were taken in Sciences sitting staring out the window while Mr. Stiller had been lecturing.

Her tongue flashes out of her mouth, licking at her red lips. “I thought I told you to stay away from him? I thought we agreed it was for your own good?” I cringe, I couldn’t help it. This girl scared the shit out of me. I didn’t think it was possible but her grip on my wrist got tighter. If the cuff of my shirt wasn’t there she’d draw blood. “I thought I’d made myself perfectly clear that I would make you hurt if you had any contact with him.” She twists her grip making me face directly her way and in her face. “He’s mine.” Into her soulless black eyes I fall. The world blurs.

No.

I close my eyes and almost immediately the familiar blinding white sensation of my migraines flare into my head. For once I was glad for them. That was a pain I was used to. I twist my arm in the same direction she was pulling it. I feel her body tilt off balance in surprise … that is all I need. I twist out of her grip and with my free hand, I find her exposed neck and slam her up against the locker.

I open my eyes. Everyone in the hallway was looking at us with unabashed amazement. “Don’t do that.” I seethe at her, avoiding her eyes. I slam her head against the metal again for good measure.

I was crazy but now I knew for certain that she had some sort of freaky power to render people incapacitated just by looking at them.

She laughed, “So the little birdie knows how to fight back.” She licks her lips again, her face quizzical. I could see a million different reasons why this girl was so popular. But she was just such a wicked bitch. I couldn’t stand to touch her. I put my hands up and back away.

Laurie’s eyes widen. “What’s that on your wrists?”

Three people appear out of nowhere, flanking her. The exotically beautiful, Camille Hong, her fiery hair a smooth cap of lava on her head, bangs framing her large green eyes. Those eyes were two emerald slits of menacing danger. Laurie’s brother, I think his name is Sam, he just stood there, looking down at me. That’s all he needed to do to make my blood turn cold.

“Then it is true.” Cami pointedly stares at my wrists in distaste. “They had to cuff you! I knew something was wrong with you.”

Were they talking about my bracelets? Strange.

There was one last person, standing a little aloof … not knowing what to do he looks from me to Laurie. Had he really taken those pictures? When he looked at Laurie I saw the blood drain from his face. He saw his iPhone. There was a flash of recognition in his eyes.

I took my chance. “Nicky! Look at me! Don’t look at her…” It was too late, he was already moving to her side, looking at her like a whipped puppy. He wraps his arms around her. She looks at me scathingly and smiles a sweet little smile at Nicolas. I keep my eyes on her mouth … anything to keep me from looking at her eyes. Bad mistake. Huge mistake. I watch, my heart tearing into little bleeding strips of flesh, as her lips met his.

I shatter. I couldn’t stay here anymore. My will to fight drops out from under me. I turn on my heels and walk away, a dead thing … numb. I try to search for the strength that I’d found during the weekend even the strength I’d found in my new friends. Friends … that had probably just been a dream.

Where are your friends now? You don’t have any friends. You’re an ugly little girl with no friends. The hissing voice of self-doubt slithered into my mind.

***

I am in my New York History class. Then in my calculus class. It all went by at a snails pace. I didn’t let myself focus. If I did I would see Laurie kiss Nicolas and the tears would come. I didn’t want that. I just wanted the bliss of nothingness. The Professors asked about things and I answered. I must have got them correct but I couldn’t really grasp what I solved. I couldn’t grasp the complicated equation that had become my life.

The bell rings. There was no way I could go back to my locker. My feet take me to the library. I find a secluded couch in a corner and I just stare into the endless shelves of books. Unseeing, I take my books out of my bag. I try to work on the mundane school work of the day. My face becomes wet with pain. I can’t concentrate. All I want to do was fall apart. I don’t think. I let myself slip away.

I stumble to my locker an hour or so later. I almost convinced myself that I’d been in the library to catch up on homework, but failed. I didn’t get anything done. I stayed there in hopes that there would be no chance of running into Laurie or her friends again. Nicky’s blank stare flashes into my mind. His lips meeting hers. I don’t think I’d be able to take the humiliation or the pain again.

My mind wanders as I walk through the empty halls. Camille wasn’t any better. Shuddering, I remember how her piercing green eyes had lashed into me as I had fallen into Laurie’s two black holes. Laurie’s brother, almost as large as Rich and more menacing. He made Rich look like a goofy teddy bear. I felt strangled just thinking about the three of them.

I wouldn’t think about the fourth person. My hand trails against a row of lockers for support. I would crumble.

Laurie… She seems to almost taste the air. It would have been comical on anyone else, her tongue constantly lashing out, like she was taking sips of the air. Her long tongue continuously licking her lips, as if her words weren’t dripping with enough venom to tear through my heart, she needed to keep the message clear. Bite me and I’ll bite you right back. Laurie bit hard.

I make it to my locker. Leaning my head against the cold metal, I try to make my headache go away. I shake myself. I was being ridiculous. I need to get out of here. I try the combination on my locker. My hands are clammy and clumsy and I have to start again … two more times. I finally get it open.

“What the…” I jump as a small pink note floated down harmlessly off the top shelf. I must be on edge. Someone must have slipped it in through the vents at the top of the door. Maybe it was from those crazy-looking twins I’d met earlier. They were nice.

I pick up the letter.

I can not breathe.

My name is scratched on the front of the folded pink binder paper. It’s in Nicolas’ slanted messy writing.

Julia,

Meet me in the gym at 6pm. I’m sorry about today. We need to talk. 

-Nicolas.

My heart leaps into my mouth and does a little dance. The letter is short and to the point, which is not normal for Nicky. There is a faint glimmer of suspicion. Nicky’s letters were always long and drawn out. He loves to write. Okay… I need to think positively here. Number One: It was Nicky and Number Two: he wanted to apologize. Maybe he’d been in a rush. Maybe he had to write it fast enough so that he could slip it in my locker without Laurie noticing.

But… He wanted to meet me in secret. So… He didn’t want Laurie to know.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I should be angry that he wants a secret rendezvous. I should be furious at him. Any misgivings I have, though, are greatly over shadowed by the fact that Nicky wants to apologize and hopefully explain his horrible behavior of these past three weeks. Maybe I could live with the fact that he was involved with that snake of a girl. I just really want my friend back. I feel a little of the weight lift off my chest. The fear and suspicion flies from my mind. Even his writing made the sunshine through my clouds of doubt.

My friend.

I could be Nicky’s friend again.

I look at my watch: 5:55 PM.

Crap. I don’t think. I run.

It’s going to take me five minutes just to make it back to the library, and that’s only halfway. In that moment I miraculously forget the awkward clumsiness that’s been infiltrating my limbs since school started and I feel my body sprint with the loping grace it once had. I feel free in my long strides, my army boots pounding against the white linoleum. Running toward happiness.

Bam! “Shit!”

Unfortunately, the gym doors are locked when I slam my body into the long metal handle. I smash my face against the wire laced glass and ricochet off the huge doors. I fall to the cold linoleum, laughing painfully at my own stupidity.

I hear someone laugh inside the gym, too. Nicky? Yeah … he was probably shooting some hoops and seen me splattered against the glass like a bug. He’s going to poke at me for this stunt for the rest of the year.

I reach for my glasses, which had flown off and bounced off a locker, and pick myself up. I try all the doors. The last one clicks open. By now all my anger and misgivings have disappeared. I left them trailing behind me in my race to get here. My face hurts from smiling and I’m bursting at the thought of being able to talk to Nicky again.

Pushing open the door I am greeted by the old sweat smell of the Gym. It’s normally bright interior opens to a gaping blackness. I squint into the darkness. At the far end there is one overhead shining brightly. The florescent beam lights a small twelve foot circle. My giddy smile falters. Nicky is there but he’s not playing basketball. He’s not doing anything. Just standing with his head down, his features shadowed under the overhead light.

“Nicky?” I walk slowly toward the light. His hair looks oddly dull in the beam. He probably just felt miserable for treating me so badly and maybe he didn’t know how to properly turn the gym lights on and maybe he was just joking and at any moment he come rushing at me and we’d fall to the floor in a laughing mess and maybe he’d …

The gym doors slam behind me. I whip my head back. I’m already halfway into the darkness and I can’t see anything behind me in the light streaming weakly from the hallway beyond the doors. I shake myself. The door must’ve closed of its own will.

I turn back to Nicky his head was up but the strange shadow still covers his eyes. His face is calm.

I’ve gone through almost five years of emotions with the boy standing ten feet in front of me. Fear wasn’t one of them. Until now.

“Nicky?” I can hear the hope and cheer falter in my voice. I take a few steps closer into the light. I can see his eyes now, the glaring light above glinting off his cheekbones.

“Nicolas?”

He wasn’t looking at me.

He is staring blankly over my shoulder.

This was a trap.

“Hello, Julia.” I see her fiery hair first as she walks out of the shadows and into the light about three feet to the right of Nicky. Cami laughs and her green eyes tilted up as if she enjoyed the spotlight and wanted me to see the full scope of her joy. She revels in the fearful surprise that flushes my face. “Did the little birdie get herself lost?” Her light giggle is in direct contrast with the fear that is just beginning to grip me. “Poor little birdie, I think she’s fallen into a trap.”

“Oh NICKY!!! Nicky!!!” another voice growls from the darkness to the left. “Nicky doesn’t like you? Do you Nic?” Another immense figure is inches from mine. The guy was so close I could smell the hunger radiating off of him. I’d seen him around Laurie and Cami before but never this close.

I turn my focus back to Nicky. I wouldn’t let my gaze focus on the others in the room. I swallow my fear and stare at Nicky, pleading with him for the second time today. Then it clicks. I think I’d been expecting this. I lied to myself in thinking that this meeting would go any other way. I should not have hoped. Hope got people hurt.

I take Nicolasʻ crumpled note out of my back pocket. I didn’t need to read it again. What it said wasn’t important anymore but it served its purpose. Nicky did write it. Nicky set me up. The paper falls from my hand.

My fight or flee instinct kicks in and my mind screams at my body, FLEE! I turn and bolt for the gym door. I see a face, brown eyes staring at me in the gym door window but then its gone as strong arms grab me from behind and toss me into the smaller but equally strong arms of a girl. The boy and Cami pushed me between themselves. I try to stop them, I try to right myself, but I just numb. I fall into a familiar set of arms. The jeers stop. They want to see what happens next. I hear a new breath hiss out as I look up into Nicolas’ eyes. They are blank. Still staring out into the black behind me.

Something in me fissures right then, a small crack that lets the lava of my pain explode up from the depth of my heart. The world is just me and him and it is an angry blistering hot world. I feel it surge through my body. I push off Nic and backhand him. The pain feels good across the back of my hand. It wakes me up further. A hard angry red welt blooms on his face, but the boy standing in front of me, this shadow of the boy I once knew, does not move. He didn’t even flinch when my hand met his face. It was the absolute worst response I could have hoped for. If he hit me back it would be better. Any response would be better.

I search his face again. I feel the heat begin to fade and I shiver. My eyes graze over his neck and I see a familiar cord. Almost shyly, I reached up. He doesn’t stop me. I pull the necklace out of his T-shirt and give it a small pull. It gives way easily, as if it doesn’t want to be there anymore and was waiting for me to come back to get it.

I look back into his eyes, my will draining. There is something there. A small twitch of his eyes as they meet mine. He is looking at me. Really looking at me, not just through me. His lips move as if trying to speak.

“Nicky?” I whisper.

I hear a small clap from behind me. The tooth cuts into my hand as I grip the necklace. I put it in my pocket.

“Very interesting. I’ve been trying to get that piece of crap off his neck for weeks now.”

Laurie was somewhere. I try to run away from her voice and am greeted by laughter. Nails bite into my arms as inhumanly strong hands grip me. I struggle in Cami’s grasp.

“Stop.” There was a slight hiss to Cami’s voice. “Sam! A little help here?” She holds me tighter and pulls me back to the light. Nicky moves aside and into the darkness.

“I’ll push it around… shit… I’ll even kill it if you want me to. But I ainʻt touching it.” The guy named Sam laughs. He’s tall and lanky, black hair falling into familiar brown eyes.

Out of nowhere, eerily beautiful students of Stellar Academy surround me. I didn’t recognize any of them. Except Cami, her silky red hair was now sticking in every direction as if her fanatic fire within had set her head ablaze. Her green eyes were trained on me.

My eyes fall on back on Nicolas standing amongst the strangers. He was still staring blankly over my shoulder. I felt the tears stream down my face. My body quakes in Cami’s tight hold. I don’t care. I don’t care what they all thought about me now. In Nicolas’ blank face I feel my world crumble.

“Nicky,” I sob softly. I thought I saw something flash again, there in the blue depths of his eyes. It doesn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

A familiar hissing laugh slithers out of the darkness. The fear I had swallowed before was streaming out of my body in waves. I can’t tell from which direction she was coming from. I knew she would be here. As soon as I had figured that I’d been set up, my brain had been screaming her name in fright.

“I. Thought. I. Said. To. Stay. Away. Do you not listen?” I struggle in Cami’s grasp. Shes holds me firmly. “You are right to be afraid of me, Julia.” She caresses my name with her husky voice. “You shouldn’t have come. I really hoped you’d come … but you are really going to regret coming here tonight. How many times have I told you to stay away from him? If you had followed my directions you wouldn’t be here in this unfortunate situation.” Her teeth rest on the s-sound of the last word. Her slight accent gives her speech a menacing quality. “I told you to leave Nic to me. He’s mine.” I feel her hand trail up my neck, nails scratching my skin.

“Shall we try again?” Laurie hisses and reaches for my chin. Her black painted long nails dig into the flesh there. Her eyes, two midnight pools of empty universe, bore into mind. I will myself not to scream as my soul shutters and I fall into a searing white migraine.

Then it stops. My head flops to the side and Cami staggers under my weight. I can barely look at her. Her features soften and she looks slightly askance, not wanting to look at me as she whispers into my ear, “This really isn’t about Nic. Well… maybe a little.” she laughs huskily. “It doesn’t have to be like this. You could just accept the power. There is power and all you have to do is reach for it.” She grips my face with both her hands.

“Laurie… I don’t think you should…” I feel the rock hard grip around me loosen, slightly. Even Cami was trying to make her stop whatever she was about to do.

“Shut up, Cami. No one needs to know. I just need to push her a bit more.” She chuckles.

“You know the rules… I thought we were just playing…” Cami’s voice is an uncertain growl.

“Just do it.” Sam laughs. “Grow a pair, Cami. When did you get so soft?” Why did this guy hate me so much?

“Screw you, Sam. I’ll kick you in your pair if you don’t shut up. I just don’t want my ass sent to the Zoo, shithead.”

They weren’t making any sense. I feel utterly powerless. I could only think about getting out of here.

Laurie grips harder, her face becoming frenzied. “You all won’t tell anyone! This little one,” she turns her attention back to me, “we’re going to become best friends. Aren’t we Julia? Be my friend, Julia. It’s an easy choice, once you make it. I see the power in you. I can help you achieve that power. Just let me IN!” She unleashes her full gaze into mine.

My mind blazes with pain. The searing migraines I was accustom to have nothing on this. The crystal white world that my pain lives in turns into a black hole. I fall into a river of blood. I toss, screaming, in the torrent. The river of blood becomes a snake. The snake screams and opens its jaws wide. I am engulfed in the bloody red snake. The coppery blood fills my throat, the poison of it licks at my body. The snake is still screaming.

The nightmare shifts. I am in a very familiar alley. I can hear screaming in the back ground. A torrential river of blood runs under my feet. The rapids should pull me under but I walk calmly on the surface to the back of the alley. There is a Man and a Bear. They attack us. The bears brown eyes widen with fright as I look at him with my weird eyes. The other boy runs away and the Bear follows him. I try to save the other little boy. The man disappears and now I am fighting with a very big Lizard. I see my Mom. She fights the Lizard too. The other little boy comes back and watches as the Lizard and my mom fight. There is a bright light above and something flies into the darkness swirling around me. It catches me and flings me back into consciousness.

I let out a gasp as I am dropped to the floor. I look up and see the beautiful nightmare in front of me.

Laurie is screaming and drops into Cami’s arms as they both fall to the floor in front of me. The is blood coming from Laurie’s nose.

“Laurie?” Cami shakes her. Laurie’s body begins to twitch and seize. She stops. Her breathing settles. “What the hell are YOU?” Cami looks at me with actual fear.

“What the f—…” I scuttle a few feet back from Laurie as Sam steps over me to check her.

I close my eyes and try to go back to the scene that Laurie had made me remember but even as I do my head begins to heat and the pain of my migraine begins again. I ignore it. I need to remember what happened. My wrists are burning under my bracelets as distorted images of Bears, Lizards and blood flood in to my mind. I scratch at my wrist. The silver bracelets are hot.

I am heaved up and made to stand. “What did you do to her?” Sam is shaking me. The headache disappears but my fear spikes. A look of extreme surprise mingles with disappointment in Laurie’s perfect features. It’s worst than if she’d been mad at me.

“What the hell was that?” Cami shoots a fateful look in my direction.

“That was…” Laurie’s eyes flicker with a second of pain before a smooth mask replaces it. She grabs both my forearms and holds my hands up for Sam, Cami, and everyone else. “This is why we can’t touch her.”

My bracelets shine in the spotlight of the gym.

“Holy shit.” Sam lets go of me and backs away. “No wonder it burns to just touch her.”

“What the… What?” Cami looks at me with amazement, “Are you crazy!”

“Sam!” Laurie barks his name and I feel Sam’s hands grip my shirt, careful not to touch my skin.

“I saw those things on your wrist earlier today. I can’t imagine what you are thinking wearing them. But you don’t know, do you? You don’t know that all silver is banned from this school. You ARE as dangerous and as naive as they are all saying.” She backs up into Nicky. He stands there behind her. A shocked look replaces the blank stare that I thought was frozen there.  He hadn’t realized that she’d walked right in front of him. Nicky wasn’t looking at Laurie.

He is looking at me. I sob harder and look away. I don’t understand what she’s talking about. But, it really doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.

“Nicolas?” Laurie’s demanding voice echoes through the Gym. He blinks and places his hand on her shoulder. “That’s better.”

“Julia, you disappoint me. I tried to do this the easy way … but I guess you don’t want that.” She laughs. “This is against school policy, hell … it’s against the Law, but once I’m done you won’t remember that I made you Shift. Please look up, little birdie. I don’t want you to miss this.”

I didn’t want to look up but her voice is too compelling, demanding my cooperation. I look up. The room swims in front of me. I see Cami approach me with metal pliers. She has one of my bracelets in its teeth. I try to struggle. Laurie’s figure blurs and distorts.

“STOP!” A clear voice rings through the gym. I blink. My vision is restored. I feel Sam’s arms let go of me immediately. Unable to hold myself, I tumble to the ground. Sam draws back behind Laurie. I try to scurry away but Cami’s green eyes are trained on me, hungry. I stiffen.

I hear a low growl and all eyes shoot up, even Cami’s. Everyone backs away from me forming a wall behind Laurie. I look into the faint light shining in from the hallway. There is a silhouette there. “What the hell do you all think you are doing?”

The voice is vaguely familiar but it was the low growl that accompanied it that I couldn’t place. It sounded a lot like Alison, but it couldn’t be. I hear a light flapping sound in the distance and another low growl.

“Oh Alison! Welcome to our little gathering. I see you’ve brought some friends! Too bad they’re not presentable.” Laurie smiles sinisterly, “I would have invited you… but I guess someone else had to spoil our party.”

I squint into the darkness as the light shown off Alison’s pale face, her gray eyes penetrating the thick air. What was Laurie talking about? Alison was alone. I want to scream out to her, to tell her to run. But, I could barely save myself.

“Shut it Laurie.” I look at her in surprise as she kneels down in front of me. “Are you okay? Did anyone hurt you?” I can’t move, not even to answer. How could Alison stand up to Laurie? I shudder uncontrollably. Alison’s eyes fill with barely restrained rage. “I’ll get you out of here in a moment. You’re safe now.” She turns to face the others.

“I am only going to ask once more … what have you done to her?”

“Oh Alison!” Laurie uses the same fake bright voice. “You jump to such conclusions. We haven’t done anything to her. We were just discussing … things. We were having a great time before you came and ruined our fun. Please remind me to thank Rich for letting you in on our fun.”

What did Rich have to do with this?

“How could you? Laurie, you know the rules. You know the Law.” Rules? That word again. I was really confused. Alison’s hand wipes the tears that were flowing freely from my eyes. I couldn’t stop them from coming. I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t want to feel anything but I couldn’t help myself. I was terrified and my heart was torn to shreds. I’m a mess.

“She’s one of us.”

“She’ll never be like us. I looked into her. There is nothing but a glimmer. She’s worthless.” Cami let her breath hiss through her teeth on the last word.

What were they talking about? I canʻt stop shaking.

“Look at her! You’ve scared her to death.” Alison’s worried grey eyes become stormy. She stands to face the otherworldly and dangerous beauty before us. “You shouldn’t have done this, Laurie. What did you say to her?”

Laurie feigns interest, “Oh nothing … really. I just wanted to see…” She laughs, “But, I was wrong … I guess. This one’s got nothing.”

“You’re lying. I know you too well, Laurie. Mr. Stiller will hear about this. You do not have the authority…”

What did the science teacher have to do with all of this?

“Oh? Who’s going to tell him? You? I thought we were sisters, Alison?” Laurie’s coal black eyes gazed into two stormy gray eyes. I felt woozy again … her eyes were driving my mind back into the abyss. I feel another pair of arms pick me up gently, cradling me and holding me up. I look up. It was Caleb.

“Stop it, Laurie.” Alison’s gaze was steel. “You know your crap doesn’t work on me…” Alison glances at Nicolas for the slightest second. “But now I see you’ve been working on another project.”

“This is none of your business.” Laurie slithers back to Nicolas’ side. I cringe as her arms snake around his. “Nic wants to be with me … he wants me. Not some murderous little girl.” She snorts.

“Murder? It that what you think? God, Laurie, you’re so dumb.” Alison shook her head, “Nic … wake up! Can’t you see what your new girlfriend is doing to your best friend?” Alison seethes. There is a flash of recognition … again. I see Laurie grip his arm harder. He looks into her eyes and any realization that had flickered in his was gone.

“You know you’re going to lose him, don’t you? It’s already happening. He’ll Shift and walk away from you. He’s not like you. He’s going to figure it out.” Alison shakes her head  as she takes stock of the group around her. “You don’t have any real friends, Laurie. You force them to be at your side, bating them with power or illusion. When you’re through with them you’ll just discard them like trash,” Alison glares around the room. “Cami? I should have realized. You are such a follower. Laurie’s little errand girl.” Cami simply glares back, standing her ground behind Laurie. “That’s right, Cami, be the good little deputy. Maybe Laurie will give you a dead mouse to play with.”

Alison walks straight up to Laurie, her face tilts up a bit. She should have looked smaller than the tall snake but I could tell they were equals. Alison, even in her slight stature had more authority here where she was out numbered. “What do you think will happen when Nic finally wakes up? At least Rich finally woke up and sees you for what you really are. What happens when Sam finally realizes that he is nothing but a little toy soldier to you? Hmm?” She whispers right into Laurie’s face.

Laurie was thoughtful and her eyes flashed momentarily with something close to fear. I don’t think that fear was a concept that she could grasp completely. Myself on the other hand, I was about to crumble in Caleb’s arms. I think I may have. He held onto me a little more tightly. For a boy that was so slight, he seemed really strong.

Laurie snorts. “How pathetic.” She’s obviously talking about me. “You better get her out of here before she falls apart. I’m bored and we’re leaving.”

Caleb gathers me in his arms and helps me to the exit. When I look back into the bright overhead light the last thing I see is the retreating eyes of my former best friend. Nicolas.

Shift by Pili Yarusi – Chapter 6 CLEAN

Chapter 6

This needs to stop.

I wake up feeling lighter. Still foggy, but lighter. I slide the off button on my phone alarm. Something sparkles in the corner of my eye. I look over to the mess of broken mirror still scattered on my carpet. The morning sun has turned my room into kaleidoscope of light.

Crap. This needs to stop. I need to let go. Will I really? Well, I have to try. I’m this scary warped version of myself. Like this mirror, I am broken. Now, I can just wallow in self-pity or I can get my butt in gear and not wait for my Aunt to call Dr. Hart, or worse, a psychologist. Total cringe. No more psychologists.

I hear Aunt Mel leave, I pull my tear soaked sheets off my bed and start my day doing laundry. I will wash, rinse and spin Nicolas out of my life. While in the basement I find an empty crate and some garbage bags. Everything in my room that reminds me of Nicolas gets thrown into one of these. The broken shards of mirror, pictures, clothes even my new phone … well, maybe not the phone. I go to my music app and find a fun reggae beat. I’m seriously testing myself. I’d been listening to nothing but crazed and jumbled metal the last few weeks … the only music to numb one’s brain to. The bouncy beat throws more logs onto the fire. This fire is eating the misery out of my heart. Don’t get me wrong … the pain is still there, fresh and ready to move back in. I would swallow it. I can’t help the nightmares when they creep up on my unconscious self, but it didn’t mean I’d live in one.

It feels good to rip the posters off my walls. There were posters of bands from concerts Nicolas and I had gone to, posters of places we’d said we go to. All of it comes down and goes straight into the garbage bags. I clean out my closet … an amazing feat that takes the better half of the afternoon. Boxes of old school stuff, thrown away. Old journals and letters from Nicolas … into the crate, my Nicolas Box. I place the Nicolas Box neatly in the back of my closet, behind a larger box that contains a large amount of stuffed animals that I don’t have the heart to give away. I open the Stuffed Animal Box. Quite a few there were from Nicolas… I squash the memories that wanted to crash into my mind. There was an old yellow tail poking out. I dig it out. It was a stuffed lion that Mel had given to me ages ago. I smile and throw it on my bed.

That reminds me of another gift … one that I had given. My grandfather would want me to get it back now that it was no longer safe. How was I going to get the necklace back? Crap. I would deal with that later.

I close up the boxes and grab the three garbage bags filled with junk and bounce down the stairs. Grab my bedding and bounce back up the stairs. I fix my bed and look around. My room looks sterile. Everything wiped down and straightened. Nothing out of place. Good. Clean. Way too purple though. Lavender walls, purple blinds… I would have to do something about that soon. This was a good start.

Next!

I grab my school books. The music changes as I walked back down the stairs. The crooning voice of a very popular male singer dominates the air in the building. I remember having a serious crush on him a few years ago but it was fleeting because I couldn’t stand his music. I grab the wrought iron railing of the staircase in effort to fight the urge to tear back into my room and change it. I close my eyes and let the under lying beats move through me. I let the rhythm take over. I open my eyes. Once you look past the whining lyrics, the music was decent.

I dump my bag in front of my study couch. The sun was low in the sky but I was sure I could finish most of my school work before it went down. The work was mundane … easy. A five-page short story based on an Austen quote of my choice, due tomorrow. I’d already finished that last week. But, I had a half hour to give it another read-through and edit. Three pages of calculus. Boring. This school was supposed to be the best but I didn’t give me any challenge. I finish within the hour. I stretch for a moment before deciding on my next project. I grab my computer. I was half finished with the huge workbook the Science professor had given us at the beginning of school. I knew if I finished that now I’d regret it later. It was easily my favorite subject and the workbook was interesting but tedious work, some animal anatomy and some quantum physics. I really wanted to get to the quantum physics part. But, I would need this time-killing work for days that I wasn’t so in control.

Control. Yes, I need to stay in control.

There was nothing in my bag that I could work on. I turn on the computer and stare at the bookcases in the study. I would tackle those tomorrow after school. I hated to give books away but the shelves were getting crowded. They were double stocked. Maybe I’d ask Mel to redo the shelving units, build them into the walls or something.

The computer boots up. I could just finish the semester group project paperwork.

***

I hear the tinkling of familiar keys, Mel’s keys. Ouch. I turn my head towards the sound a wee too fast and am paid with a crick in my neck. Ugh. Great. I’d fallen asleep on the couch while reading. My mood brightens a tinge. I fell asleep and there had been no nightmares. I tried to remember if I’d even dreamt. Shoot, I could barely remember flopping down on the couch. There was nothing. I smile. This ‘letting go’ stuff was working.

More jingling of house keys. Mel knew I was in the study and was giving me a chance to avoid her by running up to my room. I swallow. I would have to face my Aunt eventually. There is a small knock on the study door. Sooner then.

“Come in.” My voice is calmer than I’d expected.

“Hey there, Kitten.” Mel leans against the door, kicking her black work boots to the side. She looks small there, in the doorway, tired in her wrinkled clothing. She was the strict veterinarian during the week but on the weekends she loved to volunteer at clinics around the city.

“Hey Mel.” I look down, uncomfortable. “I must have dozed off… I didn’t have a chance to start dinner.” I didn’t know how to broach the subject of my blow up yesterday.

“That’s okay honey.” She sits on the couch, a cushion away. “I picked up some pizza from Ralphʻs. He says, ‘Hi,’ by the way.” She fiddled with the edge of her flannel.

I sigh, “I’m really sorry about the way I’ve been acting.”

“Honey, I know this year has been really rough for you. You are being so strong. You have always been strong. Taking care of everything here at home. Being an amazing student and an even better niece. Sometimes I don’t think I do enough for you…”

“Mel… I…”

“No, let me finish. I talked with your grandparents today. They’re worried about you. They have things they need to share with you. They could take care of you better than I am. I am doing my very best but I see you and the struggle you go through everyday. I am not doing enough. I just thought keeping you here would be best for you. It’s not. I love you, Kitten … but,” she hesitates, looking as if she were fighting the urge to cry, “if it is too hard for you here … you can move in with your grandparents.”

What?

“Move? To Hawai’i? Aunty Mel…”

She interrupted, “I’ve already talked it over with them. Hawai’i is a lot more… relaxed. It’ll be easier for you to adjust. They can get you into one of the finest schools and you’d be able to make new friends there.”

The emphasis on ‘new friends’ didn’t escape me. “Aunty Mel.” I scoot over to her and grab her hand. She was shaking. “Mel, I don’t want to live in Hawaii. I am not running again.”

Mel smiles through her tears. “I’ll leave the option open for you.”

I hug her. My mom ran from her problems and look where it got her. I wasn’t going to be like her.

***

My chair squeaks as I settle in for Sciences. Rich whips his head to face me. So much for trying to stay unnoticed.

“Woah! Darlin’ you look like crap!” Rich snickers. The two freshman boys at the table laugh along with him.

My face reddens. “You smell like crap, Rich, and I have to sit next to you but you don’t hear me complain.” I whisper in a cracked voice. I was just loud enough for the rest of my table to hear.

Silence. I look up and into the five stunned faces of my table-mates. To tell the truth, I’m pretty stunned myself.

Rich recovers, “Wow, so you do talk. Here I was thinking you’d gone mute.”

The curly blond across the table bursts out with a tinkling laughter. “You do smell, Rich. Too much cologne.”

He sniffs his shirt, “Aw blondie, why didn’t you say so!” He scoots his seat a small ways away from the table and leans back. It doesn’t help.

The blond reaches her hand around Rich. “Hi, I’m Jennifer.” I shake it. “You can call me Jen.”

“Hi.” I don’t know what else to say.

“So, ‘Miss I am Finally Going to Speak’ now that we have the honor of hearing your voice again … you going to help us with the project?”

What an ass! It takes all my strength not to knock his chair over. It would be so easy that he wouldn’t know that I had done it. Just a simple leg swipe under the back legs of the chair and he’d be on his butt.

Instead I take out a stack of papers. The benefit of having no friends was that I had a lot of time. I give a copy to each of my table-mates. I fling it a little too hard at the two freshmen to the right of me. They were engrossed in some video game on their tablet. Their eyes widened in surprise. Jen laughs and Rich’s breath come out with a whistle. They both flip through the pages at an amazing speed.

I’d just handed them this quarter’s full project mock up. All thirty pages. This was just a fraction of the work I had completed over the weekend. All we needed to do was the labs and add pictures and charts. I already completed each lab in my head or with my grandfather … but our grade was partially based on practical application done in the presence of our professor. I couldn’t stand the practical part. Dissection … cutting into the flesh of a poor little animal. My vision blurs at the thought.

One of the freshman boys perks up, “Wow,” he bleats a little too loudly, “you finished the entire thing for us!!!”

“What’s this?” Professor Stiller grabs my mock up from the boy. Crap. Think Julia … think!

“Sir, it’s our completed paperwork.” I stammer. I didn’t know what else to say. I’d always been a horrible liar.

“Am I to assume, from what Mr. Patel here has shouted out, that you have completed this on your own, without the help of your lab partners?” His bright grey eyes scan me over black framed reading glasses.

Instead of answering I look at him in surprise. “Weren’t your eyes green before?”

Mr. Stiller cocks his brow. “Very perspective of you, Miss Lyons.” He raises his glasses back up his nose. “You are not the only special person in this school.”

An uncomfortable silence descends on our table. “Um, right. Sorry.”

“So. Did you finish this by yourself?”

“Ah … no … I, um WE decided to finish it first…”

“Miss Christiansen, is this correct?”

Jen looks up, her bouncy curls frame her innocent face, “Yes sir.” She glances at Rich for a moment. He was just about to finish reading the last page. Wow, I thought to myself, for an ass he was a fast reader.

Jen continues with a bright smile and a slight blush, “To tell you the absolute truth, Julia came up with the idea to get the paperwork out of the way … so we divided it all up. Julia took the entire second half, she just understood it more and Rich and I divided the first between ourselves.” She smiles persuasively.

Mr. Stiller is not impressed. He opens my mock up. “Mr. Brown, please explain…”

“Um sir… I’m sorry but Jen did that part. The second part though … says …”

I look up, stunned. Rich had just recited half of page twenty-four on the ventricle system of the American eagle. Verbatim.

“And Miss…” Mr. Stiller looks at Jen, but she already begins to recite the beginning of the mock up.

I try to hide my surprise. Just like me, they both had photographic memories.

“Nice work you three … what about you two?” The Professor stares at the freshmen at the table.

I should have let them rot in their own stupidity but I feel bad. I have a flash of inspiration. “Uh sir … Max and Leo haven’t finished their part yet. I figured that since they’re both geniuses at computer animation that they could animate a few mock experiments for the students, like me, that don’t want to do the actual experiment.”

The boys nod furiously in agreement.

“Well, that will be nice. I’ll expect story boards from both of you by tomorrow.” Professor Stiller walks away.

Max and Leo look at me in utter amazement. They obviously hadn’t expected anyone, let alone me to come to their rescue. I laugh. “Trust me, don’t thank me yet. I just hope you’re both as good at animation as I think you are.”

They smile sheepishly and resume their video game.

I turn to my other lab partners. Rich has a smug smile on his face. Jen is just sort of staring at me.

Rich snickers, “I knew you’d come around sometime. Nice work … I think you did this better than even I could have…” The bell rings. Rich flashes me another smile and saunters out of the class.

Jen clears her throat, “I’ve been trying to get the nerve to tell him that his cologne was too strong for weeks,” she winks as she cruises out the door, “I think the rest of the class is in your debt.”

I let a little smile bloom on my face. The bloom is interrupted by a serpentine laugh from the back of the room. Laurie. My smile turns into a jaw-clenching grimace. I hide my face so I don’t chance seeing Nicolas. I slide my book and the mock up back into my bag. I take my time. I wait for the jeering slithering noises to flow out of the room.

I don’t know if I can continue this charade. The momentary camaraderie I felt with my lab partners was fleeting. It wasn’t enough to keep the darkness at bay. I clutch my bag, not bothering to throw it on my back and stumble toward the door.

“What do you think, Caleb?” I hear a bubbly voice right behind me. I jump and my bag drops. “Well, I don’t care what Laurie thinks, we can be friends with her if I say so. I SAID I don’t care! So what if Rich told Laurie about something that happened EONS ago! She looks like she needs a friend. Don’t you want to be her friend? Good! Then it’s settled.” I feel a little tap on my shoulder. I ignore it and bend down to pick my bag off the floor. Whoever this strange girl is, she’s having a conversation with herself and I didn’t want to be her friend if she had anything to do with Laurie.

The tapping on my shoulder persists. Why are people bothering me now? I stay low and I don’t talk with anyone. It was like no one in this school was allowed to be near me anyway. I finally think of something crass and witty to throw into this girls’ face.

I turn around, that something witty that was on the tip of my tongue evaporates. I see two pairs of startlingly grey eyes staring up at me each framed by a thick expanse of black lashes. Their irises were a startlingly bright gray. One set was expectant and bright, the other drawn and cautious. They were both about five inches shorter than me. I had to look down because she was standing only a foot away, her brother peeking wearily over her shoulder.

They were clearly twins but, style-wise, they looked nothing alike. Their beautiful facial features were all the same, same smooth pale skin and round cheeks, even the same body type. Both were petite and Asian. I guessed Chinese because of the almost unnoticeable accent that colored the girls’ speech. The boy had a pair of squarish black rimmed glasses on. The glasses could not hide his enormous grey eyes. I felt lost in the storm of his eyes. His uniform was immaculately pressed, like it was straight out of the dry cleaners. He was almost too perfect, at least for a boy.

I cringe. My small experience with boys was not a good one. I could not let my mind wander in that direction.

I stare at the boy a second longer. The only thing out of place was his shiny black hair which clung to his skull like an upside down bowl. There was a slash of white hair, a good inch in diameter. I’d never seen that before.

His sister, who was tapping her foot impatiently, as if I had yet to answer some unheard question she had posed, had the same slash in her hair. Except that she had dyed it a bright shade of magenta. Everything about this girl was bright and bubbly. She looked like she was straight out of a Sailor Moon cartoon. Her uniform was in complete disarray. She missed a button at the top of her blouse and her tie was tied in a regular square knot high on her neck. Her thick black hair was pulled up to two cute pig tails, one a little higher than the other. The bands had fluffy pink balls attached to them. Her bangs were cut straight across her forehead right above her eyebrows which were arched expectantly.

“Um … hello.” I sputter.

“Hi!!! Oh thank goodness! I thought I saw you finally talking today! But I really couldn’t be sure with all the noise Laurie makes at our table. I would have much rather had you as a partner than her!” Her face broke into a surprised grin. She practically danced with surprise, as if she wasn’t sure I could speak.

“Can I help you with anything?” As if I could help anyone, I could barely help myself.

“Yes, please. My brother and I were wondering if you’d like to be our friend.” I didn’t know such a little mouth could grin so wide. It was infectious. I found myself cracking an unsure smile.

I look at her brother. He stares blankly back.

‘Ah… I guess?” I didn’t know what else to say. “Sure.” I try to make my voice sound casual.

“GRRREAT!” Then she twirls. She actually spins in place. My mouth drops open. Then I notice the ear buds that are stuck in her ears, its long white cord was tangled mess coming out of her backpack. That sort of explained the dancing.

“OK then! Why don’t we meet after school?” She grabs her brothers’ hand and as they turn he gives me a small smile. They head out the door. She is bouncing and dancing. He saunters. I stand there in the middle of the room … stunned. A bell rings.

Shoot… Lit. wasn’t going to be fun… Mrs. Tanaka hated late comers.

It wasn’t so bad though as I snuck into class. She pursed her lips a little, clearly exasperated but I had run all the way there and I’d just missed the second late bell. She’d started her lecture on the life of Jane Austen. Depressing but you could see where her life reflected her writing. Where she let her dreams of what might have been color her prose. It’s an enlightening lecture.

The bell rings and everyone begins to file out of class. Mrs. Tanaka gives her last minute notes, “Everyone, please remember that your monthly reviews are due tomorrow.” She clears her throat as I near the door. “Miss Lyons, please come to my desk.”

Crap. Another, “Are you okay? Give it some time, you’ll like this school” speech. Now I was going to be late for Gym.

***

I rush into the gym locker room at top speed and I nearly crash into a blond blur of a girl who was running out. I grab the door to prevent myself from launching into her. She stops neatly in front of me, a foot away from my face. I blink. I could have sworn she had been flying out of that door with more momentum then I had going in and yet she had come to a complete stop without help. I was still clutching the door for support.

“I’m sorry.” I had almost run her the girl down and now she was apologizing. Her voice had a British lilt to it. It was faintly melodic.

I look up. It was the girl from my Sciences class, Jen. She smiles in polite recognition, her honey brown eyes scrunch apologetically. “Looks like were both late.” Her laughter rings out into the field behind us. Her curly blond hair bounces in the slight breeze. “Julia, right? I’ll come up with something good for both of us.” She runs off without another look.

I hurry into the locker room, the encounter with Jen still fresh in my mind. What did she mean by come up with something good … I didn’t even know the girl. I recognize her from class but we had only briefly spoken today and before that I’d hardly said one word to her in the past three weeks since school started. I stuff my bag and all my clothes haphazardly into my locker and slam it shut. The second bell rings. Wonderful. Now I would have to do laps.

It wasn’t the running that I minded. I’d be just awesome if Coach Barrett made me run during the whole class. We were playing volleyball today, a game that I was actually pretty good at … but not here. Not when I didn’t know anyone else in my class. Here I seemed to play the role of the clumsy girl. I’d become the last person to be picked on every team. That meant I was on the bench a lot. The coach thought I was inept.

I fly into the gym doors, the long handle giving way to my push. I groan, all heads turn towards my bumbling entrance. I’d just interrupted a lecture. I sprint toward the group. I wait for Coach Barrett’s booming voice to sentence me to whatever extreme punishment he deemed necessary.

“Hurry up Lyons! We’re just about to start!” I stop in front of the coach, head down.

“Coach, I’m so sorry… I…” My mind was blank. I’d never been good at lying and it was impossible for me to form a coherent sentence at the moment.

Coach lowers his voice a bit. “It’s okay Julia. You’re on Jennifer’s team on court four.” I must have had an incredulous look on my face bordering on blank stupidity. He continues, “Hey, Lyons… I know this class has been hard for you but Jennifer explained that you’ve been having some difficulty with the change of this school. She also mentioned that you’re a fantastic volleyball player. I expect that the extra sessions you two have been putting in will help out in tryouts this evening.” He slaps my back and jogs over to the other side of the gym.

I sprint over to court four. They were already mid game. I would have to sit out again. Jen smiles as I approach. She cries out “Sub!” and turns to a small boy who looks like he’s never played any sort of organized sport in his life. She smiles, dimples deepening, and says something that makes his face brightened. He runs towards me with gratitude and says, “Thanks! If Rich beams me with the ball again I might be sick.”

“Come on Julia! You’re holding the game up!” A gruff voice sounds from the other side of the court. We were playing against Rich and a few other kids I didn’t recognize. Despite the growl that came from his side of the court he had a huge grin on his face. I couldn’t help but give him a small smile back.

“Hey RICH! No flirting with my players! Come on Julia, you’re serving.” I blush a little, but she hadn’t said it meanly. Her face was a welcome but determined smile. She stuck her hand out to meet mine as I got into place. “I’m Jen. I hope you’re a good player… I really want to kick Rich’s…” She didn’t get to finish.

“Hey,” Rich calls out, “is this social hour or are we playing.”

Both Jen and I snap our heads towards him, determined. She jogs over to the front right corner. The dirty white ball feels good in my hand. I throw the ball up and as my hand finds the ball again I know this is going to be a good game. I spike the ball over the net. It would have met Rich’s face but he ducks just in time, the ball slaps against the floor behind him before the girl behind him can save it.

My team roars and for the first time in a month I feel welcome.

Shift by Pili Yarusi: Chapter 5 – MIRROR

Chapter 5 – Mirror

I am prey.

There is nothing I can do, no one I can talk to. Weak. Everyone around me seems to be special. So what if I’m smart. No amount of brainpower can take me away from my past. So what if I go to the most prestigious school in North America. That means nothing as I walk down the halls, as I walk down the flower-lined paths. Everyone here is special. Everyone here is accepted. Except me.

My head hurts.

I am hated by the most popular and feared by the rest. I am a pariah.

They all know what I did.

I killed my Mom.

My head hurts.

I didn’t help her. I could have done something. I was too scared.

I see those people around me. I feel their stares. They all expect something from me.

They look at me, hungry. Waiting.

For what?

I don’t know. I keep to myself now. I don’t talk with anyone. I am friendless.

My head really really hurts.

On school days I wake up from my nightmares into my nightmare of a life.

My head hurts so I take my medicine.

Make my bed.

Stare out of my window.

Wait fruitlessly, hoping for a golden mane of hair to tumble through.

Brush things that need to be brushed.

Wash things that need to be washed.

Put on a wrinkled uniform.

Throw my hair up into a ponytail to keep it out of my face.

Avoid the mirror at all costs.

Grab a cereal bar from the kitchen.

Money for lunch.

Leave before Melanie gets up.

Walk fast, head down, past the deli … I do not want to talk to deli-man … Last time he asked about my friend. I told him that I didn’t have any friends. He’s been looking at me weird ever since.

Get on subway. Stare off into space.

Get off subway.

Get to school before the hallways get crowded. Rush to my locker.

Rush to the library. I avoid most of the crowd.

Look over homework and projects I know I’ve completed competently.

First bell. I wait. Let the cattle shuffle into class first. I rush into my Study Hall/Science Class. During the Study Hall hour, I drown myself in my latest music download, a hard driving rampage of sound, and Bram Strokers Dracula. My Lit teacher has a fascination with all things morbid and Jane Austen. She is in a morbid month. Perfect. Right now, Lucy is being attacked. I cringe. No one notices. If they do … they have no reason to care. I continue reading for the next twenty minutes. I am pleased with myself. My mind wanders. My former best friend is at the absolute other side of the universe that is study hall. He’s reading Dracula too. Black fingernails stroke his gold hair.

Vampire bitch.

I realize that I am staring again. I blast the music louder into my brain and resume my flight into the realm of the undead.

Science starts. Science ends.

The bell rings. Metal scrapes against wood. I hear a slithering laugh in my direction. The hissing voice says something. I pretend not to hear. But I do anyway. The snake has made some comment about my hair. My hair. It’s tangled and hitched up in a messy bun.

I look down into my bag and pretend that there is something interesting in there. The snake passes but not before the rancid smell of lavender and pine assaults my nose. I sneeze. I’ve convinced myself that I am allergic.

The class is empty. I make a break for Lit. class. At least here I can relax a little. Some of the other students even talk to me. Some. Not really. At least they don’t visibly detest me. The English Professor lectures on Dracula. I don’t pay attention. She calls on me. I mumble an answer. I guess I said the right thing because she doesn’t pick on me again.

I don’t want this class to end. I don’t want to go to my next class. But … I want this class to end because I will at least get a fleeting glance of … him. I don’t allow myself to think his name.

The bell rings.

As I throw my bag over my shoulder my English Professor summons me. She looks worried. I wonder if she knows about my past too. I walk up to her desk. She says things about being concerned and that perhaps she might suggest a trip to a counselor. I ask her if I’ve turned in all my homework. She says yes. I ask her if I’ve ever missed an answer. She says no. I ask her if I’ve ever missed a class. She says no. I tell her that I am fine.

Gym and lunch are a blur.

The bell rings. Now I’m late for my History of New York class.

The professor drones on about the Third World War. Even though it happened the year I was born, Manhattan and the entire world still suffers from the aftermath. It had ended with the devastation of Manhattan. The massive explosion that ended the New York Attack had leveled the Northern part of the park as well as the surrounding blocks. It was assumed that the planes were targeting the financial district and were brought down sooner. No one really knows. Many lives were lost. It was an act of terror. Similar attacks had broken out all over the United States focused mainly in New York, Washington DC, The entire West Coast and Hawaii.  Although it had only lasted a few months, the entire country had changed.

He rambles on. There is nothing that he is saying that any New York born kid couldn’t tell you. Normally I would have been an eager participant… but I just don’t have it in me. I shut him out and began the work at the back of the chapter.

It’s Friday and I really need this day to be over.

***

I wake up. The remainder of a nightmare grips me. I hold my breath as the tightness falls away. I really need to stop dreaming of flying.

Mochi-kitty head butts me in effort to get me out of bed. She tries to help. She is constantly by my side now. She knows I need a friend. She’s brought me another dead mouse. I pick the dead thing up by the tail and throw it through the open window onto the fire escape. Mochi gives me a look of disgust as if to chastise me for wasting yet another good mouse. I almost laugh.

Melanie is tinkering in the kitchen downstairs. I wait. It’s Saturday. She always goes to the clinic on Saturdays. Mochi curls up in my tangled mess of hair as I roll over and let a few tears spill onto my pillow. I don’t even really feel them anymore. The throbbing pain that courses through my heart and flows into my entire body is constant … almost normal now. It has been three weeks now since I last talked with … Nicolas. Even thinking his name makes the tears come faster, burning my raw cheeks.

Last Saturday was the hardest. Today will be no different. After Melanie goes to work, I’ll crawl over to my sound system and blast the loudest most obnoxious band I own then crawl back into bed and probably stay there for another hour, rehashing the past week of nothingness. If I’m lucky, my brain will slowly shut off so I can just lie in bed and stare up at the ceiling. I try that. All I see are eyes. Some are a midnight black, trying to suck what’s left of my tattered soul. Others I imagine to be a soft blue, like the sky, just brighter. Those eyes are closed off to me.

I roll to my side to get away. I am now staring directly into my reflection. The mirror was a gift from Nicky long ago. The girl there looks despondent, haggard and lonely. Alone. The image in the mirror shakes and becomes distorted. I blink my eyes. It’s happening again. The feeling of disappearing creeps up on me. I roll again and stuff my head into a pillow. Fresh tears spring up and are swallowed immediately by my understanding pillow.

After my failed attempt at shutting my brain off, I go downstairs. Between my schoolwork, which was thankfully never ending, and chores, the day passes in a pleasant storm of activity and very loud music.

On good days, the clocks in my house speed up as the sun overhead plunges the earth back into the darkness that signals the return of my Aunt.

On bad days, I run out of things to do. If the house is spotless, I retreat to my study and reread books that I already know by heart. I go over my Hawaiian Studies and language. My Tūtū would be pleased at that at least. I almost have the first vocabulary book memorized. On these bad days nothing can hold my attention. I throw on a movie, listen to music, read a book – sometimes all three at the same time but it is no use. My mind wanders to any moment that week in which I saw Nicky. My mind flies backwards into a happier past and reflects on times when smiling was an easy thing to do … with Nicky. Those memories aren’t all that bad: it is coming back into the reality that’s the hardest part.

At exactly six in the evening I make a lame and probably tasteless dinner. I swallow some of it. I’m not very hungry lately and most days I have to remind myself to eat. I throw the leftovers into the microwave, grab my school things from the study and run back into the safety of my room. All this done by seven-thirty. Melanie is usually home by eight.

I don’t want to think about my evenings. Alone. Just alone.

And then there are the headaches. They’re becoming almost as bad as when I was a kid. My Aunt and Dr. Hart kept me in the hospital for months after the incident to make sure I was okay.

Just thinking about it makes my head burn. I grab my pills and toss two back.

Something crashes downstairs.

Mel? I look at my clock. It is already eight AM and she hasn’t left yet. My stomach sinks as my nose picks up the various smells that are wafting into my room. Now that I was paying attention to the present I can smell it. Eggs. Microwaveable sausage. Burnt toast. Mel was cooking. She wasn’t going to work this morning.

She wants to talk.

Well … at least my headache is gone.

I can just sequester myself in my room. I can tell her I’m sick. But then she’ll just burn down the house in her effort to make me breakfast. Plus, she’ll never buy it. Besides the headaches, I never get sick. Groaning, I tip toe to my bathroom. I’ll have to make myself somewhat presentable before going downstairs. Maybe I could alleviate Mel’s worry enough to make her go to away.

I make it to the bathroom without alerting her. I jump into the shower, willing the searing hot water to wash away the grief. At least for Mel. I don’t want her to worry. She has enough going on without me and my stupid little problems. She doesn’t need me rehashing the past. It wasn’t her fault she has been saddled with me since my Mom died. I feel the tears threaten again. I swallow them. The hot water is just too comfortable. It’s too easy to let my tears flow here.

I blast the cold water. My body cringes at the sudden change in temperature. I force myself stand there for a good minute. The water numbs my up-turned face, hopefully soothing the swelling there under my puffy eyes and raw tear stained cheeks. I turn the water off and wrap me and my broken heart into my tattered purple bathrobe.

Glancing up at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, the girl behind the mist blurs. I put my glasses on. It doesn’t help. I shiver a little. I can’t even look at myself anymore.

The shower didn’t help. At least I tried. I go back to my room, not bothering to creep this time because now Mel knows I’m up.

I can’t smell burnt toast on the air anymore. Avoiding the long mirror in the corner, I throw on a pair of old sweat pants and a clean shirt and ready myself for my aunt’s barrage of questions. I think about moving that mirror into my closet as I walk down the stairs. It scares me.

I see a flash of worry crease Mel’s face as I enter the kitchen and sit at the counter. She arranges her features into a warm smile. “Morning Kitten!” She comes over and gives me a peck on my forehead.

I try to smile. I think my grin may have come off as more of a grimace from the look on Mel’s face.

I stand there. This was not part of my routine and my body did not know how to react.

“So,” Mel was throwing something frozen into the toaster. “I decided to stay home today! I figured we could do something. After breakfast maybe we could go shopping. I know you said something about redecorating your room and I saw the perfect frame for your bed while I was walking to the hospital … or we could clear out the garden. I noticed this morning that everything is drying out back there. I know it’s a bit colder now but most of the plants out there should have lasted longer and the roses need to be trimmed back before it gets too cold…” she rambles.

I get plates out of the cabinet and set them on the kitchen table. I silently nod in an absent response to her rambles as I take utensils out and place them on the sides of the plates. Mel started talking about work. Something about a little boy who had an orange jelly bean stuck in his ear. I sit down. Nod. Nod.

“Julia?”

I look up. Had she asked me something? I rake my brain for an answer but I hadn’t paid attention. “Hmm?” was all that came out of my mouth.

“Julia, I just asked you if you’d like some orange juice?”

“No. I’ll just get myself some water.”

“There’s some in front of you.” A look of concern sweeps over her face again. I hadn’t noticed that Mel put a couple of toasted waffles covered with butter and my Tūtū’s homemade guava jam, just the way I liked it, on the plate in front of me along with a tall glass of water.

This was not going well. Mel watches me carefully. “It’s been a few weeks since you called your grandparents.” My charade was not fooling her if she was actually suggesting I call them. I couldn’t even think about my Tūtū and Papa. I put some food into my mouth. I chew and swallow without really tasting anything. Try harder! “I’ll call today.” I probably won’t call today. My voice is small. “This is good, Mel.” It was her turn to nod silently.

I take another bite, and another. Mel looks away and at her own food. She doesn’t eat. My waffles are becoming hard to chew. My mouth is dry. I take a large gulp of water to make them go down. It is like swallowing styrofoam. I grab my napkin to wipe the tears that are flowing down my face again. I look down hoping that Mel hadn’t seen that.

“Kitten, sweetheart…” She began but I didn’t let her finish.

“I’m sorry Mel… I can’t…” The tears blur my vision as I stumble out of my chair and run upstairs to my room.

Thinking I could face my aunt had been a huge mistake. I shut my door and tumble back onto my bed and sob uncontrollably into my pillow. I try to quiet myself but I can’t. There was no one I could turn to. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t have my Mom. She died saving me because I was stupid for being is that dumb alley. I didn’t have Nicky. Nicky would understand. He would understand because he was the one who was doing this to me.

I feel a hand on my head. Mel. She strokes the tangles there. It makes me cry harder. I want to confide in her but, how to begin? I look up and into that cursed mirror.

My vision blurs.

“I don’t know who I am anymore. I’ve lost me. I don’t recognize that girl.” I couldn’t recognize the fear in my voice. Shaking, I point at the long mirror in the corner of my room. It was the absolute bane of my existence. I miss the girl that all my doctors said I could be if I tried. The girl that used to smile into that mirror. Now that mirror, a window into my tattered soul, terrified me. I didn’t know the person who looked out at me from that glass. She wasn’t me. I didn’t look like that.

I was going crazy.

Every time I look in a mirror now, my face would distort. My image there would fade. It was like I was disappearing. The blur and the ensuing blackness that sometimes follows scares me. It reminds me of the alley. Of my Mom screaming my name. I couldn’t go there.

“I know it’s hard, Kitten, you’re going to be all right, I promise. This is all part of growing up. You’re changing. Do you think … do you want me to ask Dr. Hart if you should go see someone again? Do you want to see Dr. Hart?”

“No.” I say as she reaches for me and brings my head down to rest against her shoulder. Fingers stroke my hair. My mind flashes back to the day before school when Nic was stroking my hair. I push my aunts hand away. It reminds me of him. “I don’t need the shrinks psychoanalyzing me again and drilling me about what happened. I saw things that weren’t there. I don’t remember it correctly. When I woke up, Mom was gone and I was covered with blood.”

Mel gets in my face. “Number one, you know that wasn’t your fault.”

“No, I don’t. I don’t know that it wasn’t my fault. I was covered in Mom’s blood, Mel! How does that even happen?”

“Stop it, Julia.” Mel shakes her head sadly. “It wasn’t your fault. And number two: I wasn’t talking about that anyway. You should go and see him to discuss what’s happening now. Maybe something is wrong with Nic”

“No, Mel. Dr. Hart is the the last person I want to talk about my feelings with. And Nic?…” I want to disappear. Stellar School and all the people that went there made me feel like I didn’t exist. I shut my eyes against the pain, against the nightmares and most of all against Nic. All I see is red. I started to shake.

“It’s all right, love.” She pats my head again.

I brake. “NO! no NO! I’m not going to be all right!!!” I scream at my Aunt. It feels good to yell. I let the pain flow out of me. I hit her hand away. I couldn’t tell her what was going on. I couldn’t tell her that my classmates knew about my past. I push off the bed and I rip that stupid, ugly mirror off the wall. It crashes onto the hardwood floor.

The sound of shattering glass reverberates through my body and I crumble.

I fall to the ground in front of the shattered pieces of my mirror. I look down. I finally recognize that girl. My eyes burn with the tears that have finally stopped.

Mel says something. I ignore her. She puts her hand on my shoulder. “I’m calling your grandparents, Kitten. You have to stop this.”

I shrug it off. “Just get out, Mel.”

As the door shuts, my mind becomes blank with grief except for the image I was now staring at. I recognize the girl in the broken fragments of reflective glass because for the first time in weeks it truly reflects me.

Shift by Pili Yarusi: Chapter 4 HOLDING ON

Chapter 4 – Holding on

“Julia?” Nicky spat. Shaking me. Rattling me. He looks at me through familiar coal black eyes. A snake slithers around his neck. Nicky’s voice becomes softer, more feminine. He starts to sound a lot like my aunt. “Julia, are you sick?” I open my eyes and look into Mel’s concerned hazel ones.

Mochi is licking my face. Groaning, I scratch her furry little belly. “Mel? Let me sleep…” I complain.

“Julia, I have Nicky’s Dad on the phone. He’s a little concerned…” I grab the phone from her outstretched hand. I’d tried to call and text Nicky all day yesterday.

“Is Nicky alright?” I blurt into the phone.

“Julia? Thank goodness. Is Nic there?”

“No. Is he alright?

“Yes … and no. He didn’t come home last night which isn’t like him so I thought he might’ve been with you but Mel just said that you were home all night. Hold on…” There is rustling and talking in the background. I can’t understand any of it. “Julia, Nic just got home. He won’t talk to me. Do you know what’s going on?”

The phone slips from my hand as the world blurs and a painful white and searing migraine hits me. A pair of black eyes flash in my mind.

I feel hands at my shoulders. “Julia? You okay? Another headache?”

I open my eyes. “Just give me a moment.”

“I’ll grab your pills, Kitten.” Mel leaves the room. The pain subsides lingering on the edges of my consciousness. Threatening. I need to clear my head but there is no time. I lift the phone back to my ear,  “… are you still there. Julia? Can you still hear me?”

“Hi Dr. Hart. I’m here.”

“Another headache?” Mr. Hart knew all about my medical difficulties. He was not only Nicky’s adoptive father but also my physician. “Julia… Is it bad? Would you like to come to the office? Do you have your pills? Maybe we need to adjust your medication?”

My head clears a little as Dr. Hart’s voice slaps me back into the present. “Yeah. It was a pretty bad one.” Mel returns with my pills and some water. I take one, not bothering with the water. “Is Nicky okay?” I ask.

“I think so. So, you don’t know where he was last night.”

“No.”

“And you don’t know who he was with?”

My chest begins to ache. I have a guess. I hope it’s not true. “No. I’ll try to ask him when I see him at school.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to come into my office today? You don’t sound very well, Julia.”

“No, Dr. Hart.”

I don’t think you can fix this ache in my chest.

***

I give myself a pep talk on the subway. For the first time in years, Nicky didn’t come to my house in the morning. Maybe he was sick? Tired from being out all night? Who was he with? I really needed to shut my brain up. I would try to forgive Nicky for ditching me at lunch and after school.

And … I would try to look past the fact that he may have spent the entire evening with … Crap … my head hurt like hell. I couldn’t even think about that black-haired snake without my head pounding.

I run into our Sciences/Homeroom class. Even if I didn’t like the answer, I was determined to make Nicky tell me what happened. I look over the room. Nicky was sitting with his head down at our desk. Good. The black-haired girl and her entourage were missing.

I walk over to the five-top. Nicky wasn’t looking up so I tap him on the shoulder to get him to turn around. His eyes brighten for a moment as he saw me. A slight flicker of remorse flashes on his face.

I am about to smile. I am about to punch him and poke at him for being a butt. I am about to tell him how worried his Dad is. How stupidly worried he’d made me! But then his eyes avert, they trail away from my face and over my shoulder to the door behind me.

His face drops and the apologetic smile that had been there changes into a look of blank hunger.

I don’t look at whoever he was looking at. I’m afraid to. I move to take the seat next to Nicky. If I could just get him to look at me everything would be okay.

“Excuse me,” the girl sounds like she had a slight lisp. No one elongated their S’s like that. I follow Nicky’s blank gaze up to the girl’s smug face. “I believe you are about to take my seat.” She stares down at me, her long legs accentuated by four-inch black wedges. Her black eyes, so dark that I could barely make out the irises in them were lined with dark blue. As if she needed any makeup, I absently thought. A flash of determined authority slithers over her features.

My head begins to pound and against my will, I pull the chair out for her. I hear a snicker come from the redhead. I look away from the girl and my mind suddenly clears. Wait! What was I doing? I slam the chair back under the desk. The other kids at the table look up. Twins, I thought absently. The girl-twin gave me a look of pity. The other twin was the boy I’d scared away at lunch yesterday. I shake my head and the migraine subsides.

“No, I sat here yesterday. Mr. Stiller assigned it to me.” My voice sounds small and humble.

The girl’s eyes flash sliver as they lower into two slits, her black onyx eyes bearing into mine. I didn’t know what she was trying to do, but it was starting to scare me and people in the class were beginning to stare. I don’t know what frightens me more, her or the attention we were attracting. I hate attention.

Suddenly, her head cocks to the side as if trying to figure out a puzzle. “Your eyes are weird.” She smirks. Without taking her eyes off me she lets her husky slithering voice carry out over the din of voices in the class. “Mr. Stiller!” Now all the attention was on us. Crap.

I was determined not to be the first to break this weird staring contest … but now I had to. The force of the complete attention of the class startles me into submission.

“Yes, Miss Amin?”

“Julia was wondering if she and I could switch seats.”

I… what?

“Yes, that’ll be fine. Miss Lyons?” I look up. I couldn’t believe this was happening. “Ah… Julia, you can take the seat next to Mr. Brown.” I look around at where he was pointing. The only empty seat was next to the big guy from yesterday. I look back at the table, at Nicky. The redhead’s face was turning into a beet. She was snickering loudly under her breath. The twins had resumed their silent conversation.

“Then it’s settled. Excuse me.” She neatly pushes me aside, takes the seat in front of me and looks sweetly up at me. “You can have my seat back there. Since you didn’t seem to want to help me yesterday I had to help myself to Nicky at lunch… and after school. He’s so… delicious. We’re great friends now.”

I want to throw up. At least now I know what happened to him at lunch yesterday. And after school. And last night. There was nothing I could do. I tried to get Nicky to look up at me. But it was in vain. There was nothing for me here. I grab my bag and rush to the empty seat at the back of the room.

In my hasty escape my hip bumps a chair and my bag flies out of my grasp. All my books tumble under a table. The class bursts into laughter, the loudest coming from the front of the room. I could see the redheaded girl practically pounding the desk.

I duck under the table to retrieve my books. I want to just crawl underneath it and hide there until this day is over. I reach for my calculus book but it isn’t there any more. The beefy boy was under the desk with me. He had my books stacked neatly in his left hand, his right extended.

“I’m Rich. We met yesterday.” He retracts his hand when I don’t take it. “I saved you from death by grape.” His smile fades, turning into embarrassed concern. “You were choking… Remember?”

I just stared at him blankly. My mind was still reeling from my embarrassment. I realize a second too late that I had let a few errant tears fall. I wipe my face quickly.

“Yeah, I remember. Thanks.” I say tersely. All I need is for this lug to start teasing me too. Wasn’t he with that black-haired girl? He was with her yesterday. He had no reason to be nice to me. I grab my books from him and sit.

“No prob.” He lounges backwards in his chair as the professor begins his first lecture. “So we have to study Avians… ah, you know… Birds…” I didn’t catch what else he said because all I see is Laurie run her claws through Nicky’s hair.

I open my notebook to take notes. Owl anatomy. I already looked over that chapter last night. I knew it by heart. What I didn’t know was that my heart was beginning to fall apart.

***

“Oh look.” Rich swings his head back to me in the lunch line, “There is Mr. Lover Boy right now.”

“Where?” I look around in vain. After a dismal gym hour, in which the entire class witnessed me eat it during sprints, Rich insisted on walking me to the cafeteria. I protested that I didn’t want to go to the cafeteria, not after yesterday’s grape debacle. But, Rich laughed and said if he didn’t watch me I’d probably trip over myself and hurt another student. Also some nonsense about hiding from beasts. Plus I was hungry and maybe if I could just get Nicky alone he could explain what was going on.

I spot him sitting alone in the back of the cafeteria.

My spirits lift a bit. I grab my tray and make my way to him.

A rough hand grabs my forearm and steadies my tray before the fried chicken can go flying off of it. Rich swipes a grape from my fruit salad and pops it into his mouth, “You know it’s a losing battle. You should just let him go.”

“What are you talking about? You don’t even know me. You don’t know what Nicky and I have been through! We…” I stutter. Why was I spilling my guts out to this lug? “He’s all I have.”

“No, he’s not.”

“Let me go please.”

“Suit yourself. But it looks to me like Nicolas has found someone else.”

I turn my back on Rich and head towards my best friend. I have to get him to explain. I notice that quite a few people were staring at me as I get to the seat next to Nicky, our backs to the rest of the cafeteria. What were they staring at? Uncomfortable and a little lost for words I inch a seat away from the table with my foot. He looks at me. His eyes flash happily and he is about to say something. A glimmer of hope unfolds in my chest. Nicky’s eyes avert from mine and he follows someone or something approaching us from behind.

“Ah hem.” I hear a throat clear behind me. “My, my, my … this little birdie does have a knack for fluttering around where she’s not wanted, doesn’t she?” Her voice makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

As I look behind me the redhead, Cami, hisses at me as she walks to the seat on the other side of Nicky. Who hisses?

Laurie glides to the other side of the round table, places her tray down and sits gracefully. In the moment her eyes brush past mine I feel my head begin to ache. It’s only fleeting. I shake my head.

When I open my eyes again Laurie is still staring at me.

“What?” I spit. This girl was seriously beginning to freak me out.

“Touchy, touchy aren’t we?” Her words slither over me. “Oh … nothing. Just thinking about what makes you tick. You’re a weird little birdie. Cami can’t figure you out either. And that, my little bird, is very strange.” Laurie continues to stare at me with some strange mixture of amusement and disgust.

What does she mean she can’t figure me out? Figure out what? I looked at Cami. She is downright scary.

Cami grins, “I’m sick of trying. I think she’s nothing.”

Nothing. I’m nothing.

Why should I even care what these girls think of me? It stung though.

Laurie is staring at Nicky. Out of the corner of my eyes I see his body go stiff. His hands grab his tray forcefully, knocking over a bottle of strawberry soda. I pick it up and place it back on his tray. He looks at me for a fleeting second. In that moment I see the light in his eyes vanish. His sky blue eyes are a stormy steel blue now. Unseeing. He looks back at Laurie who is now smiling. I hear his chair scratch the concrete below it. He gets up and moves around the table to sit next to her.

I couldn’t believe it.

“Nicky? What are you doing?” He ignores me.

There was a pause. Cami snickers. “Told you I’d come back for you.” Her voice chokes me. I can’t speak. I hear Laurie hiss to Nicky, “What’s her name?” She asks Nicky with a mock politeness that barely covers her obvious dislike of me.

I can’t stand it. “You know my name is Julia. I’d like to know who you think you are, Laurie…”

Laurie ignores me. She looks steadily into Nicky’s eyes as if hypnotizing him. “Her name is Julia.” Nicky’s voice is monotone.

“Well, Nicky could you please tell your little friend, Julia, that I am no longer interested in being her friend. Tell her that she is no longer welcome in your company and that she’d better stay away from you and me or her life will become rather painful.” Laurie hisses out the last few words and turns to her lunch.

Headache clears as I stare at her. Did she really just blow me off? “Excuse me?” I stand up, furious. She just threatened me. How DARE she! “You want to say that to my face?” I could not believe this was happening. To top it off, Nicky was just sitting there beside the witch, not saying anything. He was just staring longingly at her. It made me sick.

“No.” As she looked up into my eyes the world blurs. My head explodes in pain. I double over and hold onto the table in front of me. I bite my lip to stop myself from throwing up or screaming. Or both. It was as if her stare was enough to knock me to the ground. I steady myself. Who was this girl? WHAT was this girl? I saw her lick her lips. “Hmm.” She mused. “Interesting. Not at all what I expected. You are immune … except for…”

My head explodes again. “Now isn’t that fun, but… it does not matter. I don’t want to play with you. I thought about being your friend but you don’t like to share. So I had to take what I wanted. I thought that maybe you’d be a great addition but then I realized that I don’t care what the others say about you.”

What were people saying about me? Laurie’s black eyes catch mine. I feel my feet dragging the rest of my body towards her until I am face to face, her black eyes baring into mine.

“What are people saying? Isn’t it great how the past catches up with us? How people from our past recognize us for who we really are. No one has said anything … yet. But my friends and I will take care of that.” She laughs huskily. “I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. My name is Laurie. I could tell you to stay the hell away from my new boyfriend. I could tell you that if I ever catch you talking to him I will make sure you never speak again. I could say that you are not getting a good start in this school by becoming my enemy and that your life from now on will be a miserable hell. I could say all of this to you but…” She laughed again, “I’d rather hear Nicky say it.” She tore her steely black eyes from mine and the world righted itself again. She looks lazily at Nicky.

I laugh weakly at her. I want to tell her that Nicky would never say those things to me and that I didn’t care what she said about me at this stupid school. We both stare at Nicky. He is looking straight into Laurie’s eyes. “Go away.” Nicky said flatly.

I smile, relief washing over me. There. Now she would go away and I could punish Nicky for being such a jerk.

Nicky turns to me. My smile fades. “I said, go away, Julia.” His face, usually bright whenever he talked to me, was fixed in a horrible scowl like he’d seen something gross.

“Very good Nicky-baby.” Laurie coos into Nicky’s pliant face, “You deserve so much better than this murdering little crow.”

The room swam and I lost my grip on my tray, its forgotten contents clattering to the ground. “What did you just say?” I whisper, hoping I heard her wrong.

“Oh you heard me right. I know all about you, Julia. So do me a favor and stay away. You know it’s better this way. You’re dangerous.” She smirks.

Someone bumps me as they join the table. I hear whispers all around the cafeteria. I realize then that the entire cafeteria had stopped to listen what was going on. At least half the school had seen my defeat. They all knew that I was an outcast. They all knew what I was and what I had done.

I look at Laurie. I knew she was skewing the story. That’s how the rumors started at my last school. Someone found out. They told. But at least then I had Nicky.

Something hit my shoulder. A grape. Laughter spews from the redheaded girl at the table, “Is little Julia going to cry now? Oh no! She might get mad and claw my eyes out! Did the mean girl take her boyfriend?” She sucks a chicken wing into her mouth and swallows it, bones and all. Wait. I was seeing things. Cami smiles like a scary clown. I was going to throw up. I grab my tray and whatever I could off the ground. The whole cafeteria seems to be looking at me. I stumble to the nearest trash can. I dump it, along with a fraction of my heart.

I walk unsteadily out of the cafeteria, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. I swallow the tears that would come. I couldn’t afford to cry now. I still had three more classes left. I ignore the few ʻhellosʻ that I get in the hallway. The bell rings. The beefy boy, Rich, bumps into me. He says something that sounds a lot like, “I told you so.” and “I’m sorry.” But I brush past him without a second glance.

Better to ignore them all now than to hurt when they ignore me later. Soon they would all know what I did. They wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me.

I make it to my locker without an incident. I turn around and lean against the cold metal door, staring blankly into the now empty hall way.

What just happened? How did she know about what happened all those years ago? Guilt rakes my insides. She was right. I deserve to be alone. Nicky is safer without me.

Shift by Pili Yarusi: Chapter 3 NEW FRIENDS

Chapter 3 – New Friends

My heart soars. I missed this so much.

We crawl over to the old maple in the corner. Mochi is waiting for us there. She knows our routine. It was the best time to give Mochi her tummy-rubs. Nicky calls this our leaning tree. We come to this tree to lean and look for the non-existent stars in the bright NYC night, or in this case, to see what mystical creatures were hiding in the morning clouds. Nicky spots a tiger in a cloud that I think is a dragon. We both agree on the shark shaped cloud that flies across the sky and passes the sun. I pet Mochi as Nicky leans his head against my shoulder and we munch donuts, staring up into the blue morning sky.

“Hey kids.” My aunt bounces down the steps in her sneakers and scrubs, fiddling with her phone. “It’s six-thirty. I’ll take you both to school before I head to the clinic.” She looks down at us and at the state of our uniforms. “Nic and Julia, you both get back in here right now and get cleaned up. You are both a mess.”

I take a good look at Nicky. She was right and I probably look worse.

Back in my room, I comb a little coconut oil into my hair. A brush would just turn it to a frizzy mess at this point. I still want to hide behind my hair. A new braid tames my wild curls. Mel sent me back upstairs to change my socks, which had gotten muddy from the damp ground. I bounce back downstairs to find my aunt trying, unsuccessfully, to get Nicky’s hair into a low ponytail. It wasn’t long enough yet, but just long enough to look very untidy if left untamed. I snicker as she gives up.

“I’ll meet you two in the car.”

***

The Second Civil War changed the face of NYC. Central Park and upper Manhattan took the brunt of it. Except for any historical buildings that were salvageable the entire area was rebuilt. The bustling traffic of 110th street was diverted to a widened 111th street. 110th was converted into a small cobblestone two lane road way for emergency use and for student drop offs. The entire area from 110th to 111th and from the Central Park East to West was taken over by Stellar Academy in effort to restore and renew upper Manhattan. Two thick ivy covered iron gates loom ahead as Mel pulls her bright little Mini Cooper into the West entrance of the school grounds. The front building was massive: an impressive glass building that stood as a beacon of hope in the middle of the block. The rest of the block consisted of a hodgepodge of buildings ranging from super modern to historic wonders. As we drove into the large roundabout that circled a massive fountain and flower garden, Mel absently named a few of the flowers growing there.

A beefy uniformed boy, barely older than Nicky and I, motions for my aunt to pull over into the drop off zone. The beefy boy looks at me with recognition and winks. I drop my head, embarrassed for absolutely no reason.

I bring my head back up and while my aunt, was unaware of my foolishness, the wink had not escaped Nicky’s notice.

“Do you know that guy?” His eyes pull into a squint as the beefy boy sneaks a look at me again.

I shake my head.

“He looks familiar… I can’t place him though.” He huffs. “Great, now that’s going to bother me all day!” He throws a sharp glance at the beefy boy as if to say, “Lay off” and smiles at me, glowing.

“Looks like I got some competition!”

“WHATEVER!” I sock him in the shoulder.

Wincing and laughing Nicky and I unfold ourselves from the tiny car. I don’t know that Mel can ever take us to school. Sitting in the backseat was hell. Nicky grabs both of our backpacks and throws them over his shoulders. We kiss Mel goodbye and walk up the granite steps and through the large oak doors of the campus.

Stellar High.

We enter the Grand Hall. The Hall is the width of a football field, but half as long. The ceilings are three floors up and open to what looks like a bird menagerie. All sorts of large birds were perched up there. Quite a few were scrutinizing the humans below.

“Cool!” Nicky grabs my hand and pulls me along. We find the Students Office at the front eastern corner of the hall and check in. The stern grandmotherly woman at the desk hands us both our schedules with a huff and we leave the room.

I rush ahead of Nicky to look up again but the birds are gone. And then the world flips over as my legs are swept out from under me. My glasses go flying. Maybe if I’d been paying closer attention I wouldn’t have tripped. But I did. I tripped.

How embarrassing.

Strong arms catch me from behind with an, “Oomf.” I look up. It is the big beefy boy from the parking lot. “Hey there,” the boy’s voice rumbles. “Oh.” His arms tighten a little. “It’s you. You both getting into trouble again on your first day?”

“What…” I start to ask but Nicky picks me up out of beefy boys arms. “You okay?” Nicky asks as he slips my glasses back over my eyes. Looking around, his eyes are blazing. Laughter invades our space. There is a tall lanky girl with spiky red hair laughing down at us.

“Aww! You spoiled my fun!” she whines to the beefy boy who’d caught me. “Did the poor widdle birdie trip? Aw poor, poor birdie!” Her twinkling little laugh irritates me. She turns to a stoic black-haired boy, “Sam, are these the new kids? They’re lame…”

“You tripped her! I saw you!” Nicky advances on the girl. The boy she’d called Sam who’d been standing behind her with his back turned to us was suddenly in Nicky’s face.

“Do we have a problem here?” Sam got in his face, teeth bared. He looks like he’s going to bite Nicky’s head off when a large hand shoots out and pushes Sam back. It was the beefy boy again. He was even more massive up close. He was easily three or four inches taller than Nicky and a lot wider. “Come on Sam, let it go.”

“What’s going on, my sssweeties.” From anyone else, the slight lisp that the girl had would have been comical. But there was nothing funny about the girl who’d just walked up. The beefy boy’s entire body went rigid as she looked up at him. Her coal eyes were piercing and her black mane of thick straight hair twitched down to her waist. She gives Sam a pat on his cheek as the beefy boy snakes his arm around her.

“Nothing.”

“It doesn’t look like nothing … my my my … what have we got here?” Her deep black eyes shot daggers into mine and I feel that heat the happens before every one of my headaches. The whole world spins and I can barely keep myself from doubling up in pain. “Ah … it’s you! Rich, didn’t you say she’d show up this year!” She brushes off beefy boys arms and grabs my face. “We’ve all been waiting for you to make an appearance. The Administration is so excited for this years new haul … but you’re not just cattle, are you … no … no …” I shut my eyes. The headache recedes. “Aw … come on little Julia. Let me in. No?” She lets go of my face.

“Fresh meat!” I hear the red head whisper excitingly.

“Don’t jump to conclusions, Cami, these two might prove their worth…” I shake off the headache and I open my eyes to find the girl has moved on, staring deep into Nicky’s eyes. “Yes, very worthy. And you, my beautiful golden boy are oh so ready too…” I still feel a little light headed as she slithers on. I pull Nicky back. That seems to rattle him a little as he shakes his head and looks at me. “Are you okay?” He asks again.

“I’m fine. Let’s go.”

I take one final look back and hear the tinkling laughter of the red head echo through the hallway. I see the beefy boy grab the tall black haired girl, but she shakes him off. I grab Nicky’s hand and rush us to our first class.

***

We find our seats and Nicky still seems a little dazed. He touches his cheek and sighs. She had touched him there. For the first time I felt … jealousy? Who was that girl anyway? How’d she know my name?

I shake Nicky, “HEY! Earth to Nicky!”

He blinks and looks at me, blushing. “Wow! My head was someplace else just then.”

“Welcome!” I look up into laughing green-blue eyes and everything goes blurry … again. My eyes close and a strange smell fills my senses. Before I can place it strong hands grip my shoulders before I can faint. “Hey there … you’re Julia Lyons.” Not a question. I’m made to sit down.

“Jules you okay?” Nicky kneels next to me as I come to.

I look at Nicky then shift my eyes towards the green-eyed man.

“I… I guess I’m still jet lagged.” Why am I so weak today?

“Ah, you probably just have first day jitters. Happens to all the new students. I’m Professor Stiller.” His green blue eyes crinkle again at the edges. “This will be your seat for the rest of the semester. Nicolas, why don’t you take the seat next to Julia since you seem to know one another.”

Nicky was about to take his seat when something hit him from behind. “Hey, watch yourself.” I look up. It was the beefy boy from the parking lot again.

Nicky opens his mouth to retort but instead of speaking his face morphs into a look of a hungry little puppy. A blast of incense fills the air. It was sickly sweet and I know who it is coming from. It was the black-haired girl we’d just run into. Of course she’d be in the same class. Perfect, I thought as I turn around to face her and automatically wish I hadn’t.

“Well … how nice is this. A class with my newest friend.” The room swims again and I need look away. “Julia, won’t you introduce me to your … um, boyfriend…?” Her coal black eyes swept over Nicky.

Snap out of it, Julia! “How do you know my name?”

A little slithering giggle escapes her red lips, “Oh … I know plenty about you. I’d rather know your friend though, seeing as you were getting nice and cozy with my boyfriend.” She runs her red tipped claws up and down the beefy boy’s arm.

All eyes turned to face her. She’s captivated the room for the small space of that moment. Somehow she made the school’s uniform look like it was made for the runway. Her perfect skin glimmers in the artificial light. Every girl in the class wanted to be her and every boy wanted to be with her. I didn’t get it. The only other people in the room that seem unaffected by her were the other kids at the table I was standing in front of. The three of them were having a hushed conversation.

I look back up and she’s giggling and slapping the beefy boys hands away. The boy gives up and moves toward the back of the class. The Black-Haired Girl looks at Nicky and he stands as if summoned. All I can do is stare. I feel like I’m intruding on an incredibly private moment. My hands form into claws. She obviously wants Nicky…

“Okay! Welcome to your Sciences class and study hall.” The professors voice booms through the fog. Nicky blinks and I grab his hand and yank him down into his seat below.

Giggling erupts and trails to the back of the class.

“Nicky … you okay?”

“Yeah … yeah, sure. That was super weird. Who is that girl?” He looks back at the Black-Haired Girl. His eyes fog up again. The girl wiggles her black tipped fingers at us.

“I don’t know. She said she knows me. I don’t know how though…”

“Weird” Nicky shoves his long hair out of his eyes. He is back to normal now.

“Yah… I know. I think we should stay away from her.” I look towards the back of the class. “I think we should stay away from all of them.”

Mr. Stiller commands the attention of the class, “As some of you already know, your studies here at Stellar are a lot more free flowing. Your four new classmates have passed the aptitude and physical examinations, so they have every right to be here as you do. But they don’t know how this school works. Please do your best to make them feel welcome.” Mr. Stiller’s eyes flicker towards the back of the class and the noise there is automatically silenced. “This semester we will be studying whatever branch of Science I see fit to teach you. I’m thinking a little bit of Animal Science to get in touch with our furry little friends.” Mr. Stiller laughs a little at that. “And then we will switch gears and I’m thinking we might discuss a little bit of quantum physics and dark matter… or what I’d like to think of as the energy that binds us all… But that’ll be later in the semester. For now, I lovingly call this class “The Cage” as you will be spending the first two hours of everyday caged with me, so get comfy!” The class goes by in a haze of introductions and paperwork. Nicky and I are two of four new kids in the class. The other two are at the same table as the Black-Haired Girl and her crew. I pity them.

Class is almost done and I finally get my head out of my introduction notebook. This school is surreal. After the Second Civil War, the entire block north of Central Park had been converted into a College and High School. All students entered from the grand entrance located at the middle of the property. The College was on the West side of campus; the High School was to the East. There were no grade classifications at this school. If you were smart enough to get in, that meant you were smart enough to graduate regular High School. To even be at this school, you had to pass a High School equivalency exam. Apparently, we did, last year, in the ninth grade. It was part of the testing that we’d been administered. I just thought Nicky and I were the weird smart geeks. Who knew that we were in the upper echelon of humanity? We both took specialized tests that threw us amongst about two hundred fifty-nine other students – the smartest kids between the ages of fourteen to seventeen in North America. There were schools like Stellar all over the world. If you didn’t graduate to the College by the time you were eighteen it was okay because every student there had their choice of college. We could go anywhere. We could do anything. Nevertheless, you wanted to get into The College. That was the goal. Students who had not graduated were not allowed to go into the West side of the school. There were guards at the doorways always. The guards knew who had graduated just by looking at you. They didn’t need papers, they didn’t listen to lies, they knew.

Some kids graduated at fourteen, some on their eighteenth birthday. There was no way of knowing. It was all very hush-hush. One day the principal would just tell you, you graduated. Some of the younger graduated students still attended High School but none of them were allowed to discuss their College classes.

I bump my shoulder into Nic, “I wonder who in our class had graduated?”

“Hey Nicky.” We haven’t talked all class. He’s focused on something towards the back of the class. I shake him a bit and he looks back at me. Dazed. “I just asked you … never mind. Do you wanna meet at my locker before lunch.” I started putting all the paperwork into my bag. Mr. Stiller had given handouts of species to focus on. Our table was “For the Birds”.

“‘Kay.” Monosyllabic.

“You okay?”

“No … ah yes. Um do you know who that girl is back there?”

Wait. What? “No… I told you that before.”

“I know but she seems to know you and I thought that maybe…”

“You want an introduction? She asked for one you know.” Was he really slobbering over some girl and asking me to send her love notes for him? Butt-head! “Earth to Nicky!!!”

“What?” He shook his head. “Whoa! Totally someplace else right there. What happened?”

“Maybe you can tell me that.”

“Shit … we’re gonna be late. Meet you at your locker later for lunch,” and with that Nicky runs off.

***

My second class: Literature. Nicky’s second class: Creative Writing. Our classes are at separate sides of the Literature Hall. Thank goodness I made plans to meet for lunch. I really have to knock some sense back into Nicky. What’s up with him?

***

I walk into the crowded cafeteria, alone. Nicky didn’t show up at my locker before lunch. He was supposed to meet me there. I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I ignore it. I’m just hungry. Maybe Nicky was so hungry that he’d forgotten to meet me.

I scan the room. No Nicky. My stomach rumbles again. The donuts and orange juice this morning were long gone, leaving an empty starving beast in its wake. After Animal Sciences, I’d had English Lit. Then Gym right before lunch and I was famished. I choose a turkey sandwich and a fruit salad. Although I could probably eat six of the fried chicken thighs they were serving but after the donuts, I needed to eat something healthy today.

The tables in the cafeteria were large and round, good for small groups of friends to eat around and talk with each other. I didn’t have as much luck as most of the students here. Without Nicky, I was alone. I try to shrug it off. He’s probably stuck in some class, probably his creative writing class. I could see him showing the professor his story ideas. Smiling at the thought, I find a table. As I sit, I recognize the other people sitting there. Both boys were in my Sciences Class, the beefy boy and a smaller Asian boy that sat at my table. They look like they were in an intense argument about something on the smaller boys phone, but they weren’t saying anything. Not a word. Just pointing. They didn’t notice me take a seat across from them. I knew I was blatantly staring at the pair, but I couldn’t help it. It was so odd. The beefy boy abruptly grabbed the phone from the hands of the smaller and started pounding his fingers against the screen. The smaller boy watched, a little put out, but engaged in what the other boy was doing.

“YES!!!” The beefy boy roars. I almost fall out of my seat in surprise. He does a little victory dance while the smaller boy just sits back and seethes’. The smaller boy’s eyes meet mine. He flushes, grabs the discarded phone from the table and runs away.

“Hey! Caleb! Come back!” The beefy boy calls out. This guy was huge. It was hard to believe that he was in high school. He was cute in a burly sort of way. He was easily a foot taller than me. Shoot. I looked down, pretending to fiddle with the grapes in my fruit salad. I was staring again. Besides this morning, I could have sworn I’d met him before. I pop a grape in my mouth for something to do.

He hadn’t noticed me staring. Thank God! He slumps back into his seat. The beefy boy looks at me, his brown eyes bearing down on mine. “Hey! Why’d you go and scare him off like that! I finally got him to let me play that game! It took me over two weeks to convince him. Now he’s gone and run off.” He looks at me with mild accusation.

I take a breath in. I mean to tell him that I hadn’t done anything … but nothing comes out of my mouth.

Instead, I choke.

I am choking on the grape I’d just begun to chew. Partially from the surprise of the accusation – all I did was sit down. I hadn’t done anything to the younger boy that would be considered even remotely scary – and partially because the beefy boy looked at me full in the face. He was stunningly beautiful. His large brown eyes looked like they were brimming with tears as a child would when his best toy was taken away from him. I saw a flash of anger there that made my stomach clench involuntarily. That’s when I choked.

I couldn’t get it out. I wave for the beefy boy to help. In two long strides he comes up behind me and wallops me on my back. The culprit comes flying out of my mouth. I cough and air flies back into my lungs.

He put his hand on my shoulder. “You OK?” He looks down at me his face spread wide in a stupid grin. He looks like he’d like nothing better than to fall to the ground laughing.

I don’t get a chance to thank him for saving me or to chastise him for scaring me.

“Who threw that?” There was a string of expletives that accompany the question but all I can concentrate on are the emerald green eyes encased in the smooth ivory skin of the girl who I’d accidentally hit. It was the same redhead that tripped me this morning. I tear my eyes away as the expletives get louder. Her small pink mouth was spread tight over a straight line of sparkly white teeth. I wonder stupidly who could be more beautiful, the big beefy boy or the enraged redhead. I really couldn’t choose.

“Whoops!” The beefy boy laughs looking from me to the redhead. “She didn’t mean to Cami!” He was laughing even harder, “She was choking and she had to spit it out somewhere.”

I cringe as I hear the girl’s chair slide out. The beefy boy could not have made it sound worse. I hear the area around us become hushed. I get up out of my seat to apologize but the words get caught in my mouth. The red head comes up to me, her face inches away from mine.

“You spit that thing at me?”

Her green eyes lash into me. I can’t breath. I try to fill my lungs but they would not work. It was like she was crushing my windpipe. With what little breath I had, I scream.

Silence.

“Freak.” The redhead laughs.

There were some twitters of giggling in the crowd around me. It must have looked like I screamed for no reason. I wanted to explain how I had lost control of my breath but there wasn’t anyone around me who would care. I stare at the evil redhead in front of me. All I can think of to say was, “Stay away from me.”

“Or what?” She is about to say more but is interrupted.

“Cami…” The beefy boy seethes through his teeth. There are quite a few teeth there too.

“Whatever… I’ll get you later…”  Cami seethes as she stalks away.

I slump back into my chair trying to tune out the new chatter in the cafeteria. Worse day ever. I was now the topic of embarrassing discussion amongst my peers. I look up. The beefy boy is looking at me.

“You probably shouldn’t have spit that thing at her…”

Irritation wells up inside me, “I didn’t mean to!”

“Well, it’s all the same to her and she never liked you to begin with. Now she really has a reason to hate you, she holds on to her grudges.” He grabs a slice of apple from my tray and throws it in his mouth.

“What did I ever do to her?”

“Oh … that. Ah…” The boy grabs another apple. “Cami just doesn’t like anyone.”

“Argh!” I growl into my plate. I wasn’t hungry now. My mind was in a jumble. First, Nicky ditches me, now I have an enemy on my first day of school, and to top it all off I have some big oaf staring at me. I didn’t think he was remotely cute anymore.

“Stop staring!” I spat under my breath.

“Why? You were staring. Before.” Crap, he noticed that. I didn’t say anything. My face felt a little hot. Thank goodness for my tan or I’d probably look like a lobster. He continues, his voice a little less enthusiastic, “Hmm… You’re friends with that blond kid… Ricky or Dicky. Yeah… Dicky.”

“You mean Nic?” No one else calls him Nicky except for me.

I meet the beefy boy’s calculating stare. “Yeah, that cat. You tell your friend to stay away from Laurie. Although…” He gave a little growling chuckle. “I really don’t know whether to punch him or shake his hand. Maybe I’ll do both…” and at that he picks up his tray and saunters away, laughing.

I stare after him. What was he talking about? Why would Nicky be with Laurie?