Authors: C. J. Valles
“I reserve the right to delay judgment until I’ve seen his beach house. He’s a doctor. He’s gotta have one.”
When my mom lets out a surprised laugh, I jump up.
“Now, duty—actually, homework—calls. Finals are rearing their ugly heads, and I can’t afford to flunk Trig while I’m still waiting on those Oregon acceptance letters.”
“Nope. And I’ve been checking the mail compulsively.”
“What about the California schools?” she asks apprehensively.
“Nope. I’m officially an Oregon girl now. Go Ducks! Or Beavers! Or wherever I get in!”
My mom looks around with feigned horror.
“Someone’s body-snatched my daughter! The real Wren Sullivan hates football!”
I struggle to keep the smile on my face.
“When in Oregon, Mom, do as the Oregonians do.”
Climbing the stairs, I glance into the mirror when I reach the top. Again, it’s just my own reflection staring back at me—my new and improved reflection, which is still glowing from this morning’s make-out session with Ever. My wide, olive-green eyes are hopeful and guilty all at the same time. When I get to my room, I take down the crude sketch I did of myself last year and look at the caption:
Wren Sullivan, inter-dimensional demon hunter
. Right. More like,
Wren Sullivan, the hunted
Climbing onto the bed and opening my Trig book, I cringe. With finals coming, I’m feeling less than confident in my mathematical prowess. Trig has not been any kinder to me than Mr. Bellarmine’s class last year. I always understood the basic concept behind algebra: solving for an unknown. My main problem was that the more variables there were in a problem, the more likely I was to get tripped up. Multiple solutions for one problem? It sounds good on the surface, but it just equates to more of a headache for me. With Trig, I’m barely hanging on by my fingernails.
Sines, cosines, tangents. … I wonder if I’m ever going to use anything from Trig after I graduate. Frowning, I dig my pencil into my notebook and force myself to focus. An hour later, I’m nearly done with the problems when my phone buzzes. I jump up, relieved for any excuse to give up.
I smile when I open the text. It’s from Taylor, the quietest and most reliable of my group of—mortal—friends, the people who adopted me after I moved to Portland last year. She sent a picture of all of us—Ash, Taylor, Lindsay, Audra, and me—from junior prom. Lindsay’s boyfriend Zach “took” Audra as his date, and Lindsay went with Chasen so that Audra and Chasen would have grade-appropriate dates. Zach was terrified of Audra, but he tried hard not to let on. And that was really the last time all of us—including Ever, Audra, and Chasen—were all together. I scroll to Taylor’s number, but her phone goes to voicemail. I call her home number next.
“Hello?” a woman’s voice snaps.
“Um, is Taylor there?”
“Taylor, another idiot friend of yours who doesn’t know her name wants to talk to you!”
I’m still reeling when Taylor picks up.
“Hey,” she whispers in an embarrassed tone.
“Hey. … Was that your stepmom?”
“Yeah. How could you tell?” she asks.
“You feel like getting ice cream?” I laugh.
“Yes!” she says desperately.
“All right. I’ll come by to pick you up in like twenty, ’kay?”
I’ve only been to Taylor’s house once since starting at Springview, and I’ve never been inside. And after being on the phone with her stepmom for ten seconds, I can see why Taylor never has anyone over to her house. Plus, I figure that we could both use a little study break.
The problem is that by the time I get downstairs, I’m already feeling guilty about leaving my mom alone. I try to remind myself that I should feel
now that the danger is out in the open and my immortal protection detail knows what it’s up against. Either way, if my moms is starting to feel edgy about me spending too much time with my college-age boyfriend—thanks to
—then a little outing with Taylor
make her feel better. I find her in the kitchen, fixing what must be her fifth cup of coffee.
“Too much coffee has been proven to make you suspicious about your daughter’s boyfriend,” I accuse with a smirk.
“Aw, honey. Tell Ever I’m sorry about earlier.”
I walk over and hold out my phone with the picture.
“I want that picture framed to prove my daughter enjoyed herself at a dance.”
“I’m going out for a bit.”
“With anyone in particular?”
I restrain myself from making a comment about her paranoia.
and I are going to get ice cream.”
“Mom, if I waited for warm weather to get my ice cream fix, I might have to wait ’til August.”
“Oh, the horror! You’re picking her up?”
“Yeah. I should get going.”
“You know, I wouldn’t mind if you had some of your other friends over one of these days …”
Other than Ever
, she thinks.
“Ashley came by the other day,” I point out.
She nods, and I hug her. Then I go to the closet to grab my jacket and shoes, my mom following after me.
“Before I forget, honey—I’m going out to dinner with Rick.”
Dick, you mean
? I retort silently, keeping my expression steady as I try not to let my hatred leak out from the edges.
dinner? It’s a school night, young lady,” I say with as much humor as I can.
“Thanks, Mom,” she laughs. “You’ll be okay?”
I’m more worried about
“I’ll be fine.”
“Remember, we need to talk about what you want to do for your birthday!”
“I’m good with what we did last year. But I think Ever’s planning something else.”
what I’m worried about
, my mom thinks to herself before I turn toward the door.
I scowl at her thought as I walk outside and shove my feet into my shoes.
smile as I walk to the curb where my car is waiting. The Mustang—which is probably still sitting in my dad’s driveway in Laguna Niguel—definitely had more character, but I’m good with my recently purchased used Civic. It has minimal dents, decent gas mileage, and it’s automatic. The only problem is the color. It’s turquoise. Not dark green. Not blue. Bright turquoise. I’m pretty sure they outlawed this color before my birth, and maybe that’s why it was cheaper than every other used car at the dealership that Ever took me to.
He had tried to talk me into getting a more expensive car—with the help of his infinite funding, of course—but I told him it might look a little too sugar-daddy-ish. Instead, I had opted for a part-time job at the mega-bookstore in the shopping center a couple of miles from school.
Driving to Taylor’s house, I surprise myself by making a minimal number of wrong turns—because her neighborhood is a maze. Right as I pull up in front of her house, the door swings open, and I watch as she comes running toward the car. A second later, she gets in and slams the door shut behind her. When she turns to me, her eyes are red-rimmed, and I remember that I’m not the only one with problems. Looking past her to the house, I see a woman with a sallow complexion and pinched features. Her appearance and attitude match the images that I’ve seen in Taylor’s mind several times.
“You have the best timing, Wren,” she hiccups. “Seriously, one more second and I would’ve gone out of my mind.”
“I can see why. Your stepmom doesn’t look like Mrs. Sunshine.”
“She’s not. That’s why I never have anyone over.”
I give her a sympathetic look and pull away from the curb.
“So, you’re more of an expert than I am—where’s the best place to get ice cream?”
“There’s the place over the hill on 23
,” Taylor says.
I nod, but the thought of going back to where I nearly got mowed down earlier this morning is cringe-worthy.
“Is it good?”
“I’ve heard it is …”
“Wait a second. You mean the place that’s mobbed all the time?”
“Yeah. Don’t you want to try it?”
I hesitate before grinning at her.
“Sure, let’s do it!”
Turning on the radio, I look over at Taylor, and she bursts into laughter.
“If Lindsay was here, our ears would be bleeding by now,” she snorts.
If Taylor is the quiet one of our group, then Lindsay is the prima donna.
I take a left back toward my house to go over the hill, mostly because I don’t want to take the freeway. The next time I check the rearview mirror, there’s a black SUV behind us. It doesn’t completely register that we’re being followed until a motorcycle pulls out a block ahead of us. With Chasen behind us and Ever in front of us, it’s like a parade, and I’m tempted to roll down the window and start doing a princess wave.
“Do you ever wonder what it would be like if you had made different choices?” Taylor asks.
I turn down the radio and look over at her, surprised by her question. Then I remember that Taylor has her own reasons to wonder about an alternate reality where things turn out differently. What she doesn’t know is that I got a taste of an alternate reality for a week last year, and it didn’t help things. I can’t complain, though—because it could have been a lot worse. In other words, I’m still alive and so is everyone I love.
“I think everyone does. But would you give up what you have now to change things?”
“I just wish things were different at home,” Taylor sighs.
I wonder briefly if Ever would lobotomize Taylor’s stepmom for me, but I withdraw the thought as soon as I’ve had it.
“Have you talked to your dad?” I ask helplessly.
“Yeah, right! She’s got him wrapped around her finger.”
“Well, you can tell her I think she has an angry, pinched face. Okay?”
Taylor starts laughing.
“Turn on 24
!” she says, pointing.
I make the left and then groan at the parking situation.
“I absolutely suck at parallel parking, just so you know,” I warn her.
“Yeah. Me, too. Keep driving, and I’ll tell you when I see a huge spot.”
“I was just over here earlier today,” I murmur.
“Seriously? Sorry, Wren! I didn’t mean to make you drive all the way over here.”
I shake my head.
“Don’t worry about it. Ever drove, and I’d much rather be getting ice cream with you than doing what I was doing this morning.”
“What was that?” Taylor asks.
“Meeting my mom’s new boyfriend.”
“Get out! Really?”
“How was he?”
“Scary monster,” I mutter.
It feels good to be—mostly—honest.
“He even fed my mom some line about Ever being too old for me and blah, blah, blah—and he’s met me once!”
“There!” Taylor squeaks. “A space!”
Pulling up, I put the car in reverse.
“If Sheila said one word about Josh and me spending too much time together, I’d freaking lose it. Your mom’s boyfriend’s got serious nerve. Hey—nice! One shot.”
I exhale in relief that it didn’t take me nine tries to park. Getting out, I lock the doors, double-checking that the headlights are off. As I put on my jacket, I glance at Taylor’s thin sweater. She’s been a Portlander a lot longer than I have, that’s for sure.
“Maybe it will be empty,” I say hopefully.
Taylor gives me a look.
“No way. There could be a snowstorm, and this place would still be packed.”
“Yeah, you’re totally right,” I groan. “Speaking of a snowstorm … when exactly is it supposed to start getting remotely sunny?”
“You sure picked the wrong time to move to Portland.
, I think?”
“Is that like
?” I ask.
“I think so. Pretty much it just means crappy summers. It’s been like this pretty much since freshman year.”
“Oh, great,” I laugh.
Glancing up the street, I feel my heart stutter when I see someone watching us. I have the sudden urge to throw Taylor to the sidewalk and shield her with my body, like out of some action movie. Then my brain catches up, and I realize it’s Ever. Still, it’s a grim reminder of the gamble I’m taking with other people’s lives every time I’m with them. When we turn the corner, Taylor points to the line wrapping around the building.
“Lovely,” I grumble.
We stop at the crosswalk, and I look for oncoming traffic. We’re fine crossing the street, except for the jerk who slams on his brakes at the last second like he’s too freaking important to stop for pedestrians. Stepping onto the curb, I exhale. Then, just as we pass a restaurant on the corner, there’s a burst of laughter from a group leaving. I glance back and see four guys—two of them stumbling over their own feet.
“What’s up, ladies!” a male voice calls.
When Taylor starts to turn toward the voice, I grab her hand.
“Keep going,” I whisper.
“Chad, shut up, dude! They’re, like, little girls,” one of the guy’s buddies laughs.
The noise behind us dies down, and I turn and see them walking into another storefront. At the ice cream place, we get in line behind a bunch of other psychos who think ice cream in cold, rainy weather is a good idea. I look past Taylor through the window, but there are too many people in the way to see anything. When we finally move up an inch, I poke her in the ribs.
“Hey, maybe we’ll get inside before they close tonight,” I laugh.
“Right? This place is insane.”
When I look back toward the window, I catch a flash of copper hair and blue eyes in the glass. Looking behind me, there’s no one there—of course. Because I’m just going crazy—not suddenly seeing Alex in every shiny surface rather than just the mirror on the landing. With a shiver, I remember the very first time I looked into the mirror and saw the blackness. I had thought I was going crazy then, too, but I wasn’t. I was falling down the rabbit hole. Taylor looks behind me and freezes.
“What?” I ask.
Then I smell stale breath. Ducking out of reach, I spin around and look at the drunken frat boy standing in front of me. I sigh. I am getting
tired of being a psycho magnet.
“Hey, little girl. You want something better than ice cream?” he asks.
. He’s not the first to call me this, and I’m starting to contemplate the possibility that something—something not human—might be manipulating easily influenced jerks in my general area. Or maybe
is just the preferred pet name of jerks everywhere.
Looking up at him, I blink and decide I need a scrub brush to clean out my brain after seeing what’s going on in his drunken mind. For a second, I wonder if I can “shock” this guy like I did Richard. There are just two problems. First, I don’t want to touch him. Second, my “power” only seems to work with those who aren’t completely human. Before I can make up my mind, a familiar hand comes down between us, pushing the guy back.
“Who the hell are you?” the guy slurs as Ever puts his arm around my shoulder.
“Her boyfriend,” Ever says evenly. “And her big brother’s behind you.”
When the drunkard and his three friends turn to size up my “brother,” Chasen waves and grins at them.
“How’s it goin’? I don’t take kindly to drunken louts messing with my little sister,” he says with more than a little amusement as he closes both his fists, causing a rumbling of knuckle-cracking.
When the guy’s three friends start dragging him away, Taylor breathes a sigh of relief.
“You guys sure have good timing!” she squeaks.
She looks back at me, wondering suspiciously if I invited Ever. I’m about to make up some excuse for his sudden arrival when he leans over and kisses me on the cheek.
“I’ll see you later,” he says softly.
I nod before smiling at Chasen.
“I owe you, big brother.”
“Yeah you do,” Chasen says, still grinning.
As Ever and Chasen walk off, the two women in line behind us start clapping. A few more people join in, and I blush. I may naturally attract all kinds of evil, but I also know how lucky I am. Most people aren’t walking around with an immortal protection squad. One of the women behind us leans forward.
“Your boyfriend and your brother? I’ll bet nobody messes around with you!”
I smile and shake my head.
“They’re all talk.”
“Yeah?” the woman laughs. “Well, I’ll bet people take them plenty serious, anyway. Your big brother looks like he could crush some skulls.”
The line moves forward, and Taylor giggles.
does look like he could crush skulls. What’s he doing here? I thought he was at Cornell.”
“I think the semester ended already,” I say truthfully.
Taylor’s eyes widen with excitement.
“Hey! Does that mean they’ll be going to prom with us again?”
“I don’t know. Do you think Zach can handle taking Audra as his date again?”
“Probably not. That had to be the funniest prom picture ever! Wait! Is Audra going to get back from England in time to go?”
“I think so …”
Considering I just saw her this morning
, I finish silently.
By the time we get inside, I’m almost too cold for ice cream. Almost. Not quite, though. The flavors are weird, some involving vegetables, others cheese. But a handful of them look like they could be habit forming. I go for the one that promises salty caramel. When Taylor orders, I look over at her with a queasy expression.
“You had to pick the one that has meat in it?”
“It’s not meat. It’s made with stock. You wanna try?”
“I’m paying—and, no. I absolutely do not want to try it.”
She takes a lick.
I shake my head.
“Uh, huh. Sure.”
I hand Taylor my cone and take out cash. There’s no place to sit, so we head back outside. Looking around warily for the jerk squad, I take a taste of my ice cream.
tasty,” I smile. “Actually, I think it might be addictive. You wanna try?”
She takes a spoonful.
“That is awesome. Sure you don’t want to try mine?”
I make a face.
“Should we walk around?” Taylor asks.