Authors: Syrie James,Ryan M. James
SYRIE JAMES & RYAN M. JAMES
To our loving spouses and family,
for putting up with our
long hours at the computer,
all our brainstorming and
shop talk at family gatherings
(when we were supposed to be
paying attention to everyone),
and for being so supportive of this,
our first published collaboration…
And especially to Jeff,
who was the inspiration
and the voice in our heads
whenever we wanted
our characters to say—or do—
You are the Pirate King!
t had been a really crappy morning.
Things can only get better
, Claire Brennan thought as she flipped on her turn signal, struggling to concentrate on the road despite the throbbing ache in her head.
“Claire! Get over, you’re going to miss the exit.”
Claire sighed and cast a sidelong glance at her mother, Lynn, in the passenger seat. “I’m trying to, but that Beamer needs to move its ass.”
The car in question finally zoomed forward. Claire pressed hard on the gas and yanked the wheel, lurching their aging white Toyota Camry into the exit lane of the 405 freeway. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her mom’s right foot stomp on the floor.
“Stop pressing the imaginary brake, Mom! I’ve done this at least three hundred times, okay? I know how to drive.”
“Sorry, honey. I was just … reacting instinctively.”
Claire merged onto Sunset Boulevard and joined the morning lineup of BMWs, Lexuses, Volvos, and flashy SUVs waiting at the light to turn left toward her high school. She could feel her mom’s gaze on her and suddenly felt a little self-conscious. Her mom had a way of looking at her sometimes that was really intense, as if she was inspecting her for some imperfection, or seeking something that wasn’t there.
Claire often wondered if it was because she didn’t look anything like her mother. Her mom was blond, blue-eyed, and beautiful—and way younger than any of her classmates’ parents. Claire had long, dark brown (translation: boring) hair, and hazel eyes. She was of medium height and somewhat curvy, while her mother was paler, shorter, and slighter. Clearly, Claire thought, she must take after her father—a man she had never met. A man her mother never spoke about.
“Why are you staring at me?” Claire asked.
“I’m not staring.” A brief silence ensued as her mother quickly glanced away. “Honey, are you sure you feel all right?”
So that’s it
, Claire mused. “Mom: You’ve been hovering over me ever since breakfast. You’re blowing things way out of proportion! To be honest, I don’t feel so great, but sooner or later every girl goes through this, okay? I’ll survive.”
“I just… I want to make sure you have everything you need today—”
“Mom, I’ll be fine. You should be relieved.
am. It means I’m not a freak of nature after all. Now I can be normal like everyone else.”
“Is that what you want, honey?” her mom said with a loving look. “To be just like everyone else?”
“Of course.” Privately, Claire added,
That’s not the only thing I want
. She wanted a home. To stay in one place for more than a year or two. To put down some roots. For her mom to finally settle down and be happy, maybe even remarry. With that kind of stability, Claire might be lucky enough to find a boyfriend herself. But what were the odds of that happening, with a restless, paranoid free spirit for a mother?
“Now that I have my license,” Claire teased, “the only other thing I need to be like everyone else is my own car.”
Her mom immediately went on the defensive. “Just because all the other kids at this school got a shiny new car for their sixteenth birthday, it doesn’t mean we can afford one. Even with your partial scholarship, the cost of tuition alone—”
“I know, Mom. I was just kidding.”
Claire shot her mom a reassuring smile and then focused on navigating the steep, curving driveway that led down the hill toward Emerson Academy. It was Book Day, the Friday in early September before the school year officially began. Claire felt her spirits lift, as they always did when she arrived on campus. She knew how lucky she was to go here.
Emerson Academy was a prestigious private school, grades seven through twelve, with only one hundred students per grade. The campus—located in Brentwood, an upscale neighborhood at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains—was beautiful, with Spanish-style redbrick-and-stucco buildings nestled into the side of a steep hill landscaped with shrubs, palms, and eucalyptus trees. The gymnasium, Middle School, and state-of-the-art aquatic center, football field, and baseball field sprawled across the valley floor below. A series of concrete ramps and railroad-tie staircases snaked their way up through the manicured hillside to the Upper Campus classrooms, creating nooks and terraces where students could hang out in the Southern California sunshine year-round.
Claire loved everything about the school: the beauty of the campus, the rotating weekly schedule that kept things from getting stale, and the challenging classes. At this school, you either respected your teachers and peers, or you were kicked out. Grades were everything. Claire was one of the top students in her class, but only because she worked really hard to keep her scholarship. After two years at a place as special as Emerson, she couldn’t bear the thought of going anywhere else.
Claire passed the junior parking lot and pulled to the curb of the drop-off circle, shifting the car into park. “All I have to do is get my picture taken and pick up my books. I should be done by noon.”
Her mom checked her watch with a frown. “I have a really busy day. I don’t know what time I’ll be able to come get you.”
“Okay, no problem.” Claire grabbed her backpack from the backseat. “I’ll ask Erica or Brian to bring me home.”
Her mom was about to protest when Claire cut her off. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll make sure I wear my seat belt, that they don’t go over the speed limit, play loud music, or text while driving, and that they aren’t under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.”
“Thank you. Call me when you get home, so I’ll know you’re safe.” Her mom thumbed through her laptop bag, seemingly unaware of the good-humored sarcasm behind Claire’s words. “Oh God. I forgot the disclosure form for the Redman account. Where the hell did I put it?” Claire’s mom had become a Realtor shortly after they moved to Los Angeles and seemed to be pretty good at it.
As Claire wedged her way in between the bag and her mom for a good-bye hug, something strange happened. A shudder passed through Claire’s body—like an electric shock in her veins—followed by a woozy feeling. Then a crystal clear image flashed into her mind:
her mother’s hand stowing a page in her bag
. Without thinking, Claire blurted out, “It’s in the outside zipper pocket.”