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.
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.
“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?”
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.”
“…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.”