Authors: Lisa M. Basso
I didn’t like lying to him.
I drew my eyes up as innocently as I could while feeling like dirt inside. “Yeah, Dad?”
“If you need to talk, about anything, I’m here. Okay?”
I stretched my lips in the widest smile I could, hoping it didn’t look as forced as it felt. He nodded and ducked out, closing the door behind him. I pressed my ear to the door, listening to his footsteps descend the stairs.
At least he hadn’t asked about my meds. If he knew I’d stopped taking them, he’d have driven me to see Dr. G right then, no discussion.
I slid the chair over from the desk and angled it under the doorknob. The absence of locks on my door couldn’t be avoided thanks to my stint at the SS Crazy. But I had the backup system, also thanks to my time on the inside. It wouldn’t hold if someone made a serious attempt to get in, but it would buy me a few necessary seconds.
I removed a thin marker from the top desk drawer and, battling the quilted dust ruffle, reached under the bed for my black-light flashlight. Then I pushed past two racks of clothes to the back of the closet. It was deeper than it was wide. I carefully removed a piece of tape from the corner of my
Across the Universe
A noise from the other side of the wall snatched the breath from my lungs. Muffled chattering from Laylah’s room. Those damn Musketeers never went home.
I shook my head, uncapped the marker, and clicked on the tiny flashlight. Its purple glow displayed the psychedelic colors of the poster. I pulled a second piece of tape and watched the poster float down.
Twenty-seven hash marks glowed on the white wall. My recreated record of the number of wing sightings I’d had in Arizona, after Mom’s death, but before the mental hospital. Getting a replacement copy of the poster and reconstructing the tally was the first thing I’d done after my release. I used it to remind me where I came from, and where I never wanted to return to.
Never was coming sooner than I thought.
Using the special black-light marker, I drew a line beneath the twenty-seven other sightings and began a new tally. My hand shook as I drew a single, new mark.
I remained there for a long time, staring at the new line, letting the truth of my life weigh down my soul like rocks to my earthly body. How many more would accumulate before I got caught?
I didn’t sleep that night. The upside—and only upside—to not sleeping was catching Dad before he headed out the door. I needed his signature on my work permit. Dad didn’t like the idea of me working, but he caved when I promised that a part-time job wouldn’t derail my fragile post-insanity mind and reminded him I needed to stay busy to keep my mind off Allison. Before he could think better of it, I grabbed an extra notebook and zipped out the door.
The extra notebook was an idea that had come to me in the early morning hours. I needed a place to unleash the thoughts circling in my head like vultures, instead of waiting for them to strike at the worst possible moment. The notebook would keep my secrets when no one else could. Most importantly, it was something I didn’t mind tossing before heading home for the day, just to make sure I didn’t get caught.
The weight of my backpack battered me as I inched down San Francisco’s hills, past a massive mural of the orange-painted Golden Gate Bridge and the famous Painted Ladies—a specific row of spectacularly well-kept Victorian homes.
Lee and I met at Roxy’s Diner for a hot chocolate fix every morning before school. Today I got there early, so I could get out all of the thoughts crowding my mind since yesterday morning. I started by journaling yesterday’s hallucination of the wings outside the diner and worked my way up to discovering Allison’s body. Writing about it was almost as bad as seeing it firsthand.
Daphne slipped into the seat across from me—Lee’s usual spot—and slid a mug of hot chocolate across the table. I slammed the notebook closed. “Guess you were serious, after all.”
The waitress’s mussed hair resembled a bird’s nest in both the way it was constructed and the overall messiness of the finished product. I pulled the work permit out of my bag and ironed it flat with my hand before pushing it across the table. Her index finger tapped the edge of the paper while her droopy eyes centered on me. “Now, you really want to work here? Lots of girls apply, but when they hear about mopping the bathroom floors, taking out the trash, and dealing with the more
customers, they never come back. I think we’ll start a pool on how long you’ll last.”
If there was one thing I loved besides gardening, it was proving people wrong. “I was hoping to start after school today.”
“We’re too short-handed on Wednesdays to train. If you want, you can start tomorrow instead. I’ll have an extra waitress you can shadow.” Daphne rose from her seat and pulled out her order pad, already moving on to the next thing.
“Tomorrow’s great,” I said after her, already thankful for the added responsibility, hoping it would drive my thoughts away from Allison. And a certain winged boy. He could be gone today. I could very well walk into class today and find no wings—or no new kid at all.
I was sure that Allison Woodward was gone. I swallowed a mouthful of rich hot chocolate and allowed myself to think the word I’d been trying to avoid: dead. She was dead. I
that. Dr. G always said,
you know it’s real when all five senses receive it together
. I could still summon the metallic scent of her blood and feel it soaking into my evidence-tagged clothes.
Lee plopped into the seat across from me, startling me out of the memory. “You never called me back last night.”
I pushed my mug toward him in apology.
He greedily gulped up the rest. He smiled at me, but his eyes were rimmed dark and his whole demeanor drooped. I thought to ask him what was bothering him, but it was getting late. I paid the check, and we walked toward school. “Did you hear about Allison Woodward?” he finally asked.
Of course he would have heard about it. “Yeah. I, uh, found her.”
“What?” His voice cracked. “You
her? Holy Daleks, are you all right?”
Daleks. If he hadn’t insisted on last week’s
Wednesday marathon, I would have missed that one.
“I, uh, kind of have to be. It sucked. It was … horrible. One of the worst things ever, but I’ll be okay. I have to be.”
Why. He was going to ask why. And I had nothing to tell him. No one wanted a schizo for a BFF. And I couldn’t lose him.
of the worst things ever? Wow, Ray. What have you
“A lot.” I tugged nervously on my backpack’s straps.
“Losing your mom must have been hard. I don’t really know, because my dad died when I was still a baby. Whatever happened to you in Arizona, that’s all over now.”
Oh, how I wished that was true.
“Thanks, Lee. You really are the best friend.”
Neither of us said another word until we got to school. We trudged up the stairs toward our first period classes.
“Do you think they’ll, uh, make a big announcement about Allison?” Lee asked, his shoulders slumped and his head low.
“Probably.” His sadness echoed so sharply, I had to ask. “Did you know her well?”
“Had a crush on her since fifth grade.” His defeated sigh tore me in two.
We paused at the second floor landing. I reached out to him, then hesitated. The way he adjusted his glasses didn’t hide the hurt on his face. I grabbed him and pulled him into a quick hug. I hated hugs, but Lee looked like he needed one.
The corner of his lips twitched up. “Thanks, Ray.” He sounded like he meant it. “See you at lunch.”
I climbed the remaining flight of stairs alone, ignoring the churning in my stomach, and steeled myself. Missing class wasn’t an option. Not after I’d skipped it yesterday. Besides, being here was better than staying home. The more time I spent around Dad, the more likely he was to notice I wasn’t quite right, not anymore.
Two girls passed on either side of me, one muttering a semi-polite “excuse me.” I followed them into Honors English, head down, feet shuffling.
The new kid was already in his seat. And he still had wings. The tiny specks of light that struggled through the early-October clouds headed straight for him. His wings didn’t disappoint, amplifying their radiance, shimmering across the faces of our classmates.
It wasn’t until I took my own seat—more like fell into it when my knees gave out—that it dawned on me: we were neighbors. Of course he would have been assigned the only free seat in class, the one next to me. It was a pattern: any free seats in my classes were next to me, emphasizing just how much of a freak most of the school thought I was.
He acknowledged me with an entrancing smile. His wings shifted slightly, the tips of his feathers curling under like a cat’s claws.
I returned an uneven smile through dry lips.
If I stretched my hand out, it would pass right through them. I wondered if I’d feel anything. Ghosts are said to give off cold spots when they touch or pass through people. If that’s true, would these wings give off warmth?
, I reminded myself,
because they aren’t real
“Is everything all right?” he asked.
His voice pulled me from my unnatural daze. Had he noticed me staring at his glorious, non-existent wings?
Stupid, stupid, stupid
. “What? Yeah, fine.” My pulse thrummed in my ears. Suddenly, all I could think about was the way he’d stared at me while they took Allison’s body away.
Ms. Cleeson arrived and closed the door behind her. She placed a hand on her third-trimester belly and announced Allison’s death. Most of the students already seemed to know.
“Grief counselors will be available all week for those of you who would like to talk to someone.”
I glanced out of the corner of my eye. The boy with the wings didn’t seem as upset as the rest of the class—probably because he didn’t know her—but he wasn’t stoic, either. His brows, which were a half shade deeper than his blond hair, wrinkled together and stiffness gripped his upper lip.
The classroom door opened again. “Ms. Cleeson?” Ms. Morehouse peeked her head in. The new boy turned to look at her and caught me staring. I quickly looked toward the door, too. “Could I borrow Rayna?”
Everyone’s eyes shot to me. Even the new boy’s. I stiffened, repressing a yelp while my cheeks burned red-hot.
“Of course,” Ms. Cleeson nodded, taking a seat behind her desk.
Back to the basement for more therapy. I wondered if my dad had called her. My teeth clamped down, biting back the pang of trepidation hammering against my chest. All eyes remained on me as I gathered my things. The new boy’s slate-gray stare pierced more intensely than everyone else’s combined. I headed to the door. I would deal with him later; right now, I had to lie to my therapist.
Lee plunked a family-sized bag of pork rinds and a liter of Jolt Cola down on our lunch table. At least he would make the day worth fighting through. Talking with Ms. Morehouse and Jeremiah, the visiting grief counselor, had taken up the entire morning. I had no idea if I’d been convincing enough, but at least there were no questions about wings.
“I forgot to tell you this morning, I met the new kid. He’s kinda cool. Really friendly, ya know?”
“Where?” I cast a glance around the cafeteria, but didn’t see the winged boy in question.
“Yesterday. We have fifth period Bio together. His name’s Cam.”
So they’d met right after he’d tried to join us for lunch. “That guy gives me the creeps.” The words slipped out before I thought to censor myself.
“What are you talking about? He’s super chill.” He chomped down on a pork rind. The smell of fried pig skin turned my stomach. “And he’s smart. I’m stoked I won’t be stuck doing all the lab work by myself anymore.”
Throat suddenly dry, I pushed my veggie chips aside and sat up a little straighter. “Why would you work with him?”
“Cam’s my new lab partner. At the beginning of the year the class was uneven. Natalie Cruz and that stuck-up Rose Kim can suck it now. We’ll see how far they get next lab without me.”
“You can’t work with him.”
His brows furrowed. “Why not?” He laid down his next rind. “What’s your problem with him?”
I couldn’t let Lee get involved with the new kid. If they became friends I’d have to stop hanging out with Lee, or I’d slip. There was no way I could be around those wings for too long without breaking. But I couldn’t lose Lee, either. He was my best friend and one of my few, precious links to the world of sanity. I’d do anything to keep that from happening. Including planting ideas in his head. “Don’t you think it’s weird he happens to show up,” I lowered my voice, “the same day Allison dies?”
The ends of Lee’s lips turned down. “Wow. That’s … wow. That’s some conspiracy theorist stuff. What would make you even think that?”
My shoulders slumped. I was a selfish, horrible person, and a terrible friend. I looked down through the small, circular holes in the blue cafeteria table at my sneakers. “Well, think about it,” I prodded, pinning my arms against my stomach. “It’s a pretty big coincidence. And he just happened to be in the crowd outside when they took her body away. Convenient, right?”
“If there was a crowd then there must have been plenty of people outside the school then.”
“Yeah, but … still.”
The din in the cafeteria carried to our corner table, reminding me we weren’t alone. Yesterday he had tried to join us. What if he tried again today? I checked over my right shoulder, and when I didn’t see shining, I turned and looked over my left one. Nothing. He wasn’t in the cafeteria. Where could he be?
Lee scoffed at me.
“Nothing. It’s just that when you do that, the looking over both shoulders thing, you prove my own conspiracy theory right.”
“Which is?” I had to know what he believed, so I could make sure it was nothing close to the truth.
“That in Arizona you were some cool teenage super spy and you and your family moved because things got too
there for you. And not temperature wise. So since you’re hardwired with all this cool Kung Fu knowledge, you’re always looking over your shoulder, watching and waiting for the next attack.”