Authors: Cecily White
“I won’t be happy—”
, just not here.” Heat crept up my wrist where he held it, an electric hum vibrating into my bones. “Our world is full of death. You don’t belong here—”
“No! You belong somewhere safe. You belong—”
“I belong with you!”
Every inch of him froze and, for a second, he stared at me, his face pale with shock.
I don’t think either of us expected me to say it. But once I had, there seemed no place big enough to shove it back in. The words still echoed between us when he started toward the door again, pulling me along by the hand.
“Don’t say that. Not ever,” Jack muttered. “It’s dangerous.
dangerous. Not to mention impulsive, immature, and too selfish to understand that people get hurt when you’re around.”
A hot flush crawled over my face. “Funny. That’s what Lisa said about you.”
“Well, maybe you’ll listen to her next time.” Then, as if I were a particularly revolting piece of garbage, he shoved me through the doorway. “We’re done talking. Your field test is tomorrow morning. I don’t want to see you until then. And when it’s over, I don’t want to see you again. Ever.”
I glanced down the hall but didn’t move. I couldn’t. Ribbons of heat coalesced in the air, thick and taut, linking me to him with unmistakable clarity. I was still standing there, staring at him, when he slammed the door in my face.
The Ugly Truth
“Does this look poisoned to you?” Lisa poked at the edge of her pizza slice.
I glanced up, distracted, then gave the pizza a dutiful look. “It’s probably not organic, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Lisa wrinkled her nose. “Katie said if she wanted to kill a whole bunch of Guardians, she wouldn’t mess around with all this demon crap; she’d go for their food supply. Not that I buy your conspiracy theory, I’m just saying…”
I stared across the lunchroom table, mouth paused mid-chew. Suddenly, the melted cheese on my tongue tasted suspiciously metallic. “Smalley must have thought of that.”
“I don’t know. Smith-Hailey was poking around in the kitchen when we first got here, and I doubt it’s because he’s hot for Mrs. Bertle.”
My gaze tripped to the apron-clad, overweight human, her kinky black hair tucked under a hairnet as she doled out slice after slice of the now decidedly arsenic-flavored pizza. Bright sunlight poured through the glass walls of the cafeteria, morphing the chipped, lime-green tabletops into a glittering sea of Formica, unfortunately making Benita Bertle’s chubby, mocha-colored outline glisten with sweat. Despite my foul mood, the image of Jack romancing Bertle the Turtle in the pantry made my mouth curl up at the corners. Who knows, maybe that was exactly what he needed to tame his burning angst into pure, unbridled man-passion.
“I don’t know, Lis. Bertle’s pretty sexy.”
The woman swiped a palm across her sweaty forehead and, without breaking stride, reached down to grab a slice of pizza for the next student in line.
“Yech!” Lisa gagged. “Wouldn’t it be great if Smalley could implant some respect for hygiene next time she has the staff’s memory modified?”
I set down my lunch, overcome by a sudden queasiness. I’d felt on edge ever since Jack shoved me out of the Archives. The sharp ridges of his crumpled incident report still poked through my shirt pocket and I found myself reaching up to give it another pat.
He’d done an excellent job of avoiding me since our run-in—not easy when I knew he had to keep interrupting class to fetch students for the field tests. It was almost as if he’d memorized my class schedule, then specifically arranged the tests so he never had to intersect with me.
I’d just lapsed into another cozy cloud of self-pity when Lisa sat up tall beside me. Her hand shot into the air.
“Alec! Over here!” she yelled, then whispered to me. “Ami, you have to meet this guy. I told him you didn’t have a date to formal yet and, I can’t be sure, but he didn’t seem too repulsed by the idea.”
“I thought you called dibs on him.”
“I did, but you can have him first. After he dumps you, imagine how good I’ll look in comparison.”
“Thanks, that’s not insulting at all.” Where were Matt and Katie anyway?
Lisa rose beside me, her hand still waving madly as she gestured him over. “Alec, come meet Amelie. She’s the one I was telling you about. My dateless friend.”
“A pleasure.” The boy’s brilliant green eyes studied me as he gave my hand a sympathetic squeeze. “Nice work in assembly this morning.”
Lisa laughed. “Seriously? She nearly blew up the school.”
“I prefer to think of it as an opportunity for renovation. No one got killed—that’s a success in my book.”
“Too bad the disciplinary gods failed to read your book.” I tossed a piece of crust at my plate.
“Smalley cited her for assault of a faculty member,” Lisa said.
“And non-consensual healing.” I popped a ketchup-covered fry in my mouth. “But that was bogus. He totally needed it.”
Alec stared, silent, for half a beat, then exploded into laughter. He actually had to lean against a chair to keep from falling down. Finally he wiped his eyes and said, “This school is so much cooler than my private tutor. Mind if I join you?”
“Hold that thought,” Katie broke in from a few feet behind Alec. She held her lunch tray in front of her like a battering ram nudging her way through the crowd toward our table. “Looks like I’m just in time for the show.”
“What show?” Lisa glanced up, eyes bright. “Is Matt back from his test yet? He was so nervous—”
“Different kind of show.” Katie plopped her tray on the tabletop then cocked her chin toward the table near the window. The popular table.
Veronica Manning unfolded her long, salon-tanned legs and rose from her queenly perch between Keller Eastman and Lyle Purcell (who appeared to be—ugh!—
at me). We watched her adjust her push-up bra and flip a curtain of thick, banana-taffy-colored hair over her shoulder. The primping was nothing new, though I’d never seen her eyes look quite so…predatory.
“Good grief,” Alec muttered.
“Be afraid,” Katie quoted. “Be very afraid.”
Alec squinted at her. “That sounds familiar. Revelations?”
“David Cronenberg. It’s a long, scary story.”
“I like scary stories.”
Katie smiled. “Then you’ll love this.”
Veronica sauntered over with regal strides, Skye Benedict trailing at a respectful distance. Compared to the rest of us, she looked almost obscenely attractive. Her hair had been smoothed back with pearl and crystal studded combs the exact azure color of her eyes, and her lips glistened a frosty shade of neon. Everything about the girl reeked of money and plastic.
“Why, Alec,” she cooed, her Baton Rouge drawl on full throttle. “I couldn’t help noticing you have no place to sit for lunch.”
Alec cast a glance at his tray, happily nestled between Katie’s and mine, then back at her.
“No one decent, I mean.” She tossed her hair seductively. “Perhaps you’d be more comfortable at our table? With people of your caliber.”
He arched an inquisitive eyebrow at her, then turned back to us. “Is she serious?”
“Serious as a demon pox outbreak,” I told him.
“She thinks high school is a reinvention of the caste system,” Katie added.
“My Lady Katherine, do you mean it’s not?” He frowned, feigning confusion. “Most disturbing news. However shall we oppress the rabble?”
“Ritual floggings?” Katie suggested.
“At least forty lashes,” Skye agreed, as Veronica rolled her eyes.
“Omigosh, there’s Mattie!” Lisa rose out of her seat, waving, while Katie grumbled something unhappy-sounding.
As usual, Matt looked like he’d recently escaped incarceration by the fashion police. His shirt was covered with soot and clung to his chest in wet patches. At least he was wearing a shirt. Over the summer, we’d gotten so used to seeing him in a swimsuit and flip-flops, the lack of sunburn seemed the most striking thing about him.
“Hey, y’all,” he greeted us. “Vee! Slumming it today?”
“Don’t call me that.” Veronica let out a bored sigh, her lips forming a flawless, heart-shaped pout. “Alec, if you decide to join us, our table’s available. So am I, for that matter.” She eyed him head to toe then said, “Come on, Skye.”
Matt waited until they were gone, then slapped Alec on the shoulder. “Dude, I see you’ve met our self-appointed royalty. How’d that go?”
“Strangely intriguing,” Alec commented, “yet not enjoyable at all.”
“I find people are either charming or tedious,” Katie groused out her requisite movie quote. “She manages to be both. FYI, if anyone else says Matt’s name I’m leaving. I’m low on movie quotes.”
Matt grinned broadly and plopped himself into the seat beside Lisa. He’d foregone the lunch line in favor of vending machine munchies, which he set on the table with a measured thud. “You’re still doing that? I thought you’d cave days ago.”
“So did I,” she said. “Then I remembered my pride.”
He laughed and ruffled her hair. “All you have to do is admit the Inferni have souls and it all goes away. Simple as that, kiddo. What do you say?”
“I’d rather kiss a wookie. Or Veronica Manning.” She tossed another French fry in her mouth. “Probably a wookie. They’re nicer.”
Lisa and Katie groaned while Matt made an awful-sounding wookie noise.
The sad thing is, Veronica’s crowd actually used to be cool back in middle school, before everyone started obsessing about bloodlines and class rank. Nowadays, it seemed like every decision we made had to be based on social strategy. Take Lisa, for example. She and Matt were perfect for each other. Beyond perfect. They knew each other inside out and still found ways to fall in love every day. Yet here she was, willing to screw it up over a few stupid points on a field exam.
I didn’t get it at all. If
could fall in love with someone easy like that, I would do it in a heartbeat. For example, if I could care about Lyle the way I cared about—
The thought halted abruptly. It was a ridiculous, painful thought, one that left me with unhappy chills. Clearly, Jackson Smith-Hailey wanted nothing to do with me. Caring about him was like trying to love a tree stump—a cold, mean-spirited, paternalistic tree stump. With fungus.
“Alec,” I cut into the conversation beside me, desperate for a distraction. “Your dad works with General Manning on the High Council, right?”
“He does, though I’m not sure how much actual work they do.”
“Have you heard anything about these attacks on our instructors? I heard it’s not demons this time.”
“Amelie!” Lisa snapped. “I told you to leave that alone.”
Alec chuckled, his arm hooked around the back of Katie’s chair. “The Graymason rumors, you mean? Yeah, I did hear about that, but I can’t say I paid attention. The way the war is going, we don’t have time for fairy tales.”
“See,” Lisa snapped. “Now drop it.”
I frowned, disappointed. I wasn’t sure what I’d hoped for—some sense of outrage or injustice. It just struck me as
how blasé everyone was.
By the time we finished lunch, Alec and Katie were chatting as if they’d known each other forever. It was hard to miss how his fingertips kept brushing her shoulder, how she giggled and blushed whenever he said something funny. It might have been my imagination, but I could swear Lisa’s eyes got the tiniest bit stormy when they stood up to leave. Together.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a nugget of jealousy, too. After all, if Alec and Katie hooked up, and Matt and Lisa got back together, where did that leave me? Alone? Or, worse, huddled on Lyle’s rec room couch trying not to hurl?
I was in the midst of another mope-fest when a commotion broke out at the front of the cafeteria—a flood of students coming in early for the second lunch seating. Creepy Daniel’s dark head bobbed through the middle of the crowd, a glyph-carved metal coat of arms by his side, as he pushed his way through the swarm of students. What caught my eye more than Daniel’s unique approach to crowd control, however, was the broad-shouldered hottie holding the cafeteria door.
Jack had changed out of his blood-stained clothes, opting instead for a tailored, gray-blue oxford that almost matched his eyes. Damp jeans hugged his long muscular legs and uneven clumps of wet hair curled over his ears. Even as I sat there, I had to forcibly push back the urge to go pat him dry with a few spare napkins. It wasn’t until Ms. Hansen sidled up beside him that the world came to a screeching halt.
Her hair was brushed and pinned back in a low ponytail, and her smile glittered playfully. A wave of acid swirled in my belly as she slid her hand across his back. Like she owned him, or something.
Okay, granted, I had no right to be jealous. He’d made his feelings toward me clear. But did Hansen have to make it look so
? No fighting, no tension, no threats or insults. Just two shiny, happy people spending time together.
“What’s wrong now? You look like you just swallowed a Spivax demon,” Lisa whispered, handing me a napkin. “Is this because Alec’s into Katie? I know it’s disappointing, but he’s not the only available Watcher.”
“I still say Lyle’s your best bet,” Matt suggested, wiping his hands on his khakis. “He dresses well and he’s super cute.”
“Mattie, that’s not a very heterosexual thing to say,” Lisa pointed out.
He shrugged. “Just trying to help.”
I fixed my gaze on the stained green cafeteria table. Touched as I was by their meddling, the notion of bonding with Lyle, or anyone else, made my stomach curdle.
“Alec’s not the issue,” I said.
“Then what is?”
Unconsciously, my eyes flickered toward the door. Lisa scanned the cafeteria, finding nothing of interest. Then her face twisted in exasperation.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Amelie.
“Who again?” Matt asked. “Did I miss something?”
“She’s got a thing for Smith-Hailey. Or maybe just an addiction to lost causes. Hey, I heard Stan the janitor is unbonded, by the way. He’s human
gay. Right up your alley.”
I glared at her. “This is not funny.”
“It is. You just don’t appreciate the humor.”
Matt’s chair gave a loud squeak as he leaned back. “I don’t know. She could do worse than Mr. S. In my field test last period, the task was to quell a water demon in the back fountain—nasty buggers, by the way. I completely panicked. I swear, the thing was about to drown me. So Smith-Hailey whips out a knife and jumps on its back, all the while giving me a pep talk about the ‘indomitable spirit of Guardiankind.’ He even gave me a second shot at the demon. If I was a girl, I’d be all over that.”
“Pookie.” Lisa plucked the last potato chip from Matt’s hand. “Remember how we talked about those times when your opinion is better kept to yourself?”
“Is this one of those times?”
“Say no more.” Matt blew her a kiss and obediently zipped his lips. In silence, he carried her lunch tray to the cafeteria line and began emptying it onto the conveyor belt. So sweet I thought I might vomit.
“You’ve got to get past this, honey. Trust me. You with him is like the Hindenburg of romantic disasters.” Lisa’s gaze drifted over my shoulder to where Jack stood. “Look, Hansen’s touching his chest. They’re leaving together. See? It’s hopeless. He’s taken. Let it go.”
I slunk lower in my chair, trying not to look. Sure, I had no claim on him. And he obviously didn’t want me. So why did the thought of him walking off with someone else suddenly make me feel like an abandoned vehicle?