Authors: Lisa M. Basso
Lee glanced at me. A toothy grin widened across his face, only it didn’t crinkle his eyes, making them shrink the way his smiles usually did. No, this smile was much more intent. What was he up to?
Oh God. Was he trying to set me up?
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cam watching me. Maybe he had manipulated Lee. Could he do that? No, of course not. Hallucination, remember?
My face contorted at the thought. The heat of his gaze zapped through every pore of my skin. Inside I was screaming, crumpling, and fighting. Laylah’s school and the Korean consulate were in roughly the same direction. Once I got Lee alone, I could question him to see if Cam had somehow manipulated him. Or I could throttle him for trying to set me up.
I couldn’t leave Lee alone with him. I wouldn’t.
We trekked up the Powell Street hill in silence. Cam hung back, two paces behind Lee and me. Probably to keep a better eye on me. He hadn’t said a word, but he didn’t need to. His watchful eyes and tense wings said everything. He was on edge, as unsure about me as I was about him.
When we reached the corner in front of Roxy’s, home of my future paycheck, Lee stopped. “See you guys tomorrow.”
I wanted to call Lee out. He hated taking the bus, hated visiting his mom at work, but I was just glad he was leaving, so he got away from Cam.
Lee and Cam exchanged some sort of complicated male handshake. I narrowed my eyes. So, what, they were friends now? Not good. I closed my mouth around a protest; there would be plenty of time for Lee and me to talk tomorrow, when Cam wasn’t around. I didn’t even wait for Lee’s bus to come, just turned on my heel and headed out.
Cam’s lighter-than-air steps fell in behind me, catching up as I made my way to the steepest part of the hill. I could feel the tension rolling off his shoulders. Not more than ten seconds passed without one of us eyeing the other. My pulse was off the charts. He could have grabbed me, or shouted at me, but he chose to wear me away slowly by flicking his wings out, reeling them back in, and casting them out again.
Death by insanity.
One of San Francisco’s world-famous cable cars eased down the hill, dinging its bell as it passed. Cam pulled his wings in close and swung his head around to follow it. To keep him from starting up again, I used the distraction.
“Not from around here?” I asked suspiciously. If I was stuck with him, I might as well learn as much as I could stand. What I really wanted to ask was,
are you real, or am I truly losing it?
“I, uh, just moved here.” He trained his eyes on me. “What about you?”
I didn’t answer, too afraid it might give him some leverage over me.
We climbed higher up the hill. The hotels stretched fewer and farther between, giving way to just-as-tall apartment buildings. Almost all the exteriors had the first floor built in brick, some painted in white or gray, and some left their natural golden color. The foot traffic thinned, until we were alone.
“In History class today. You …”
I ran my nails up and down my palms. I couldn’t have this conversation. My mind wasn’t untangled enough for it. Not now, not ever. “I have to go,” I blurted.
His hand snaked around my upper arm, and he tugged me behind a tall bush alongside an apartment building.
My heart slammed into the back of my throat. My knees nearly gave out. I braced myself against the building behind me and tightened my lips. Sparkles in the dark concrete shone like gemstones, playing off the sunlight of the winged one who had me cornered.
I had two choices: lie, or tell the truth. Now it wasn’t so easy to tell the difference.
I stalled, searching for the right answer. “What are you doing here?”
He studied me for a long moment, his forehead wrinkling. “I thought I was walking you to your sister’s school.”
Hmmm. Not exactly what I was asking.
“What I mean is, it’s awfully suspicious that you show up at school the same day Allison Woodward bleeds to death in the girls’ bathroom.” The edge in my voice sharpened when I looked up at him. I wouldn’t let his enticing scent weaken me. Or the fact that his hand was still around my arm.
No turning back now.
“Did you kill her?”
“No.” His answer was quick. He was so close, our noses were only inches apart. “Why would you think that?”
“Why?” His fingers tightened around my arm. “Who are you?” His eyes narrowed as they searched mine.
I was out of my league. Alone. Stupid. What made me think I could confront my fears, today or ever? My hands trembled against the wall behind me. Space. Space would help me think. I gathered my strength and jerked my arm away, getting the impression that he let me. “I’m no one.”
His shoulders lifted in a think-what-you-want kind of shrug, but as they fell they seemed more weighted than before. His wings flicked outward, as if shaking something off.
I pushed off the building behind me and dodged him. And his wings.
Either he’d follow me or he wouldn’t. A small, reckless part of me hoped he would come after me. Would tell me I wasn’t crazy. That I never had been. Which was the craziest thought of them all.
He was beside me before I reached the end of the block.
I deviated from my usual route, rounding the corner. I couldn’t lead him to either Laylah’s school or my house. I didn’t know what to believe about him, but either way, I wouldn’t show a stranger where I lived. Even the insane had their limits.
Instead of thinking more about him, I focused on the only other subject that had seemed able to compete with him today: Allison. “Why would a sweet, cheerful girl like Allison take her own life?” I mumbled to myself.
“I’m sorry.” He cleared his throat. “For the loss of your friend.”
My breath shook, and a pinhole of weakness punched through my defenses. “She wasn’t my friend, not really.”
Why was I telling him this? Friends close, enemies closer.
“She wasn’t your friend, yet you’re upset about what happened to her?”
“Just because I didn’t know her that well doesn’t mean I don’t care. She was nice, smart, a human being. How can everyone be so sad this morning, but by this afternoon no one cares anymore? It’s like they just forgot about her because she’s gone.”
“You’re … compassionate.”
And that surprises you?
I wanted to ask, but kept my mouth shut.
He swallowed. Hard. “The situation is more complicated than you need to know, but trust me when I tell you I had nothing to do with your friend’s death.” His voice remained so even. It was distracting.
But not distracting enough. I thrust my hands into my pockets while we waited for a car to pass at the next corner. “Where were you yesterday at the end of last period?”
He took his time answering, waiting until we had crossed the street to reply. “I was in class.”
“All of last period? You didn’t sneak out early to, say, use the bathroom?” I thought about the men towing the gurney down the stairs and loading the body into the ambulance.
“No.” This time he didn’t hesitate.
I glanced at him, but all I could see was his face in the crowd yesterday, watching me as I sat in the cop car. “Why were you in front of the school so late? Why were you watching me?” Paranoia bubbled up inside me. With nowhere else for it to go, I tapped my fingers on my thighs and chewed my lower lip. He knew I could see his wings. Real wings. Wings I
were real. That old, familiar tightness in my chest returned.
He eyed me warily. A look I was used to—and sick of. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” I bit out. “Just answer the question.”
I could have stabbed him right then and there. “Both of them.”
“I can’t. Secrecy is … important to my kind.”
I channeled my frustration into my feet and stepped up my pace, continuing to attack my lower lip with ferocity.
He didn’t keep up. Good. I hoped he left. I didn’t turn around; if he was somewhere behind me, I didn’t want to know. Right now, I just wanted to shake him off, go home, and forget the last few days had ever happened. Forget
. And his stupid wings. And that irritating, half-smile thing he did when he thought I was being amusing, and I really wasn’t.
The stretch of sidewalk in front of me was long, broken only by the spill of a driveway into the street. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scents of the city, allowing my fingers and jaw to unclench. A breeze stirred the late-blooming roses that lined the planter beds along the block’s large apartment building. The sweet scent invaded my nose, lightening my steps and reminding me of wonderful, long-forgotten summers. I almost felt better. Until I remembered it was October. This was the roses’ final hurrah before they died off.
Halfway through my next breath, fingers clamped around my upper arms, jerking me backward. My hair spilled into my eyes and I fought to keep my feet under me.
“Get your damn—” A large cargo van zipped out of the garage I’d been standing in front of. Its undercarriage scraped the dip of the sidewalk before it zoomed up the street. “—hands off me.”
My voice withered away. I could have been a road pancake—would have been, if it wasn’t for him. The boy who I thought would be the end of me had just saved my life. I can’t say I saw that one coming.
“Are you all right?” Cam tested my stability before peeling his fingers up, one at a time. I whirled around to face him, fighting my hair aside. His wings were half-open, the ends flowing carelessly in the breeze. His face was carefully blank.
“You … you could have …” I fumbled over the words and tried again, lifting my gaze up his shirt and into his eyes. “I know what you are.”
He straightened, tensing up. He’d saved my life. Confirming his suspicion seemed the least I could do.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier to let me keep walking?”
His face shifted into a look of childlike innocence. “Let you walk in front of a moving vehicle? Why would I do something so openly vicious?”
I could feel the disbelief touch my face and fill my eyes. “To make your life easier.”
A slow grin lit up his face.
The large building beside us sheltered the narrow street, and for a moment, everything was quiet: the world, even my mind. Time seemed to slow, and it felt like the two of us disappeared into this little pocket of the world. A pocket where an outsider and a boy with wings could share a safe, unshielded moment.
Inside, the horserace in my heart slowed to a trot.
It was unexpected. Weird. And
not like anything I’d ever experienced. What was going on with me?
I took him in. Tall, handsome, and angelic. For the first time in three years, the angelic part didn’t make me want to run back to my cell at the SS Crazy. I’d had insanity drilled into me for years until I believed it, but now, standing with Cam, I didn’t know what to believe anymore.
“I wouldn’t—couldn’t—let you be harmed for my own personal gain. It’s … against everything I believe.” His brows knitted together; worry spiked inside me again, and he zeroed in on my face.
What? What did he see?
“Are you hurt?”
My heart hammered in my throat as his hand came up, toward my face. His fingers, soft but firm, curved around my chin and tilted my head up. His thumb swiped along my lower lip.
“Blood.” His head tilted as he examined the smear on his thumb.
“Blood?” I licked my lips self-consciously. Metallic tang blasted my palate. I must have chewed my lip while we were arguing. Until it bled. Again.
“You should sit.”
All I could do was nod.
His fingers brushed my shoulders as he slid my backpack off, bearing the weight for me. With one hand on the small of my back, he guided me up the street, his touch stiffening my spine, even as my knees felt too weak to carry me.
A block and a half later, we reached Huntington Park, a gorgeous little block complete with playground, fountain, and a picture-perfect view of Grace Cathedral across the street. A tiny slice of Heaven. Cam led me to a bench. He sat beside me, his wings tucked back, careful not to touch me.
I wasn’t the best judge of character—not having much practice dealing with the outside world would do that to almost anyone—but Cam seemed sincere, and he had saved my life.
He parted his lips to say something. To deter him, I said the first thing on my mind, something that—probably—wouldn’t cause more tension between us. “Is your name really Camel, like the animals with humps?” I tapped my Converse against the concrete, my cheeks heating at the way the word
sounded coming out of my mouth.
He blinked rapidly, his mouth relaxing into a soft smile. “The name I was blessed with is Camael.”
My lips mimicked his as I repeated each syllable. “Cam-ay-el.”
“Cam, for short.” I didn’t understand how he could be so at ease with me knowing his secret. If anyone found out mine, I’d … well, freak. But, then again, someone did know now, and he was one of
A small, white, fuzzball of a dog bounded up to us, bouncing around Cam’s feet and shoving its wet nose into the shimmery wings. Cam laughed, a lyrical sound, and reached down to pet it. The dog’s little pink tongue unleashed slobbery horror over his fingers.
“I’m not the only one who can see them,” I said softly.
A whistle sounded from the opposite end of the park. The pup turned and scampered away.
Cam nodded, his lips creasing with ease. “Animals who are clear of heart can see us as well.”
The weight of it all settled over me. More proof that he—all the … wings I’d seen—were real. I swallowed. “Clear of heart?”
“Those who have not deceived or harmed in any intentional way.”
He might look my age, but sometimes, when he said weird things like that, I couldn’t shake the feeling he was much older.
“Now that you have your answers, may I ask you something?”
“I don’t get the feeling I have much of a choice here.”
An amused smile sealed his lips. “You always have a choice. You’re human. Free will is the greatest gift, bestowed on your kind before you’re sent to Earth.”