Authors: Maureen Lipinski
Tags: #young adult, #teen fiction, #fiction, #teen, #teen fiction, #teenager, #drama, #romance, #magic, #fantasy, #urban fantasy
“Um, maybe,” I said lightly, and shrugged.
! Caroline, what a great idea! What's her cell number? I'll call her right now and chat with her about joining us! We sell concessions at every game, raise money for the team, and are kind of the adult cheerleaders!” Brooke's mom clapped her hands.
“She's really busy right now. I'll have her give you a call,” I said weakly, wondering if I could scrape enough money together to hire an actress to play my mom.
“Definitely! It's a huge time commitment. Brookie's dad and I barely see each other between my volunteering and his job,” Brooke's mom said as she leaned forward on the countertop and laced her fingers together. She looked at me. “Brookie's dad's company is one of the financial backers of the new football stadium construction.”
dad, Mom.” Brooke rolled her eyes.
“Brooke still hasn't gotten over the divorce,” her mom confided to me. “Although she
.” She gave Brooke a look. “Hanging on to old grudges really pollutes your aura.”
“What time are the guys getting here?” Caroline asked Brooke as she rifled through her purse.
“Not sure. Leah, what time is Alex getting here?” Brooke asked me pointedly.
know?” Kristen asked, her voice slicing through the room.
I felt my face flush a little as I shrugged. “IâI don't know.”
Three hours later, Alex was there, and so was what seemed like the entire junior and senior classes, along with some people I could've sworn were in college.
I stayed in the kitchen. A thousand red plastic cups dotted the table as a bunch of people stood around playing something called “flip cup.” I tried to play in the first round; I soon found that my flip cup skills weren't quite up to par, so I announced I would sit the game out. No one seemed to mind.
“C'mon, Leah, throw some luck my way!” Alex yelled over his shoulder before he picked up a cup and chugged the beer inside it.
“Luck!” I called out as I watched him slam the cup down and the fat guy on his left picked up his cup and started drinking.
“Chug! Chug! Chug!” Caroline screeched, throwing her arms in the air.
“Good job!” Brooke's stepdad, Gregg, said from the other end of the table. He had his arm slung around one of the football players, like he was completely unaware of being more than thirty years older than everyone. When he first got there, he'd made a bunch of guys sit outside and listen to a bunch of lame “back in my day” stories.
“Having fun?” Alex said as he turned around to face me. I was close enough to him to know that his red polo shirt smelled like fabric softener and hair gel. The party raged around us, strains of Bob Marley in the background. I wanted to stay there forever, for it to always feel this good.
I looked up at him and smiled a hazy, fuzzy smile. “Absolutely.”
“Good. Glad you're getting along with everyone.” He turned up one of the corners of his mouth and winked at me, his long black eyelashes brushing against his cheekbones.
“Defâ” Just then, a wet hand knocked into my arm, spilling my beer all down the front of my jeans and over the kitchen floor.
orry,” Troy slurred, as he drunkenly tried to steady himself.
“Watch it, Troy! Chill out. I think you've had a few too many.” Alex handed me a stack of napkins.
“I am truly sorry,” Troy said, drops of spit slobbering out of his mouth.
“I'm fine. It'll dry.” I dabbed at my jeans and shrugged.
Alex brought his cup to his lips and drained it. He leaned forward and touched my shoulder; I was still hunched over, cleaning the ale off my pants. “I need another beer. Wanna go grab one?”
I looked at my empty cup, glanced at the keg outside with no one else around, and realized that being alone with Alex was the Best Idea Ever. I nodded and followed him through the glass doors onto the patio. I stood silently next to him as he filled his cup, the sounds of the party muffled.
“So, Leah, I â¦ ” Alex began, his voice suddenly soft and pliable. He leaned back against the patio's stone wall and cupped his drink in his hands, his beautiful blue eyes cast downward. “I just wanted to say that â¦ ” He paused and took a sip of his beer, his eyes still shifting somewhere around my feet.
I stepped a bit closer and leaned against the wall next to him. “What?” Our bare arms were almost touching, and the electricity warmed the left side of my body.
“Nothing,” he said. He looked up and flashed me a quick smile before staring into his drink. He suddenly looked less confident. “I just think you're a pretty cool girl. You're not like a lot of the other girls at school.”
“Thanks,” I said. I didn't censor the huge, stupid grin on my face, nor did I stop myself from leaning just a bit closer to him. I couldn't help it.
“I like you a lot,” Alex said. He cleared his throat and looked at me. But this time, he didn't look away. His eyes held mine for a few long seconds of silence. The two of us, just silently smiling at each other.
Then I moved closer to him and he moved in toward me. A confidence I didn't know I had swelled up as I tilted my head toward him and waited for his touch.
A kiss. A few brief moments, where I heard our plastic cups drop onto the patio with dull thuds and the liquid splash out. Where I wanted to melt into his body and hold on tight. His arms wrapped around me and pulled me against the hollow of his chest.
And then â¦ cheering.
“Way to go! â¦ Woo hoo! â¦ Get a room! â¦ Look at Alex go! â¦ Go New Girl! Go New Girl!”
We'd been discovered. I quickly wiped my mouth and turned away from the windows, my face flushed and splotchy. Alex shrugged and waved at everyone, not fazed at all. We smiled at each other as we bent down to grab our cups and refill them.
As we silently pumped the keg, I wondered if it was just a kiss, or a hookup, or â¦ something more.
He probably just had a few too many beers and you were the closest person.
As though reading my mind, Alex said, “You know, there's no one else I really want to hang out with.”
I nodded, fairly sure of what that meant. “And I don't know anyone else.” I looked up at him and smiled.
He laughed. “What? So now you're a football player
“Apparently,” I said, as my mouth twisted into a smile.
“Very funny. C'mon, let's go inside.” Alex shifted his beer into his left hand and grabbed my hand with his right. We walked inside, to a few cheers and back pats.
I think I'm Alex's girlfriend now. I know weirder things have happened, but not many.
My face still flushed, I joined Alex back at the flip cup game, wondering if my social currency had just increased. I caught Kristen staring at me from across the table, her eyes ready to shoot fire across the kitchen and incinerate me. Bewildered, I looked back at Alex, who flashed me a smile as he waited his turn in the game. I cocked an eyebrow at him and brought my cup up to my lips, holding his gaze.
The liquid hadn't even touched my mouth before I felt a nudge from behind and pitched forward. It was Troy, still massively wasted, with a trail of spilled beer crisscrossing his chest.
“Hey, man! Didn't I tell you to chill out?” Alex gave him a little shove backward. “You okay?” he said to me, touching my arm.
I shivered a little and nodded.
“What's wrong with you? You could've hurt her!” Alex put his arm protectively across the front of my body.
“Sorry man, just wanted to say hi and say sorry that I almost fell on you,” Troy slurred out, swaying back and forth. He leaned his head forward a little and stared at me. I instinctively moved a little closer to Alex.
Brooke's stepdad started laughing, muttering, “Troy, you disappoint me. I thought your tolerance would be higher.”
“Back off, Troy,” Brooke said, taking a sip from her cup. She looked at me and mouthed, “Oh my god!” then made a little clapping motion and pointed outside to the kegâthe scene of my kiss with Alex.
“Troy, why don't you come over here and sit by me,” Lindsay called out, purring like a cat, her orange tan nearly fluorescent under the recessed lighting.
Troy laughed and burped at the same time. His lips, with obviously no feeling left, curled upward into a drunken snarl. His red eyes focused on my neck. “Hey, that's a cool necklace,” he said, and reached out.
Despite his slower reaction time, his fingers reached my necklace quicker than I could move out of the path of his giant, meaty hand. I felt his hot fingers close around the onyx charm. I froze and shot Alexâthe manifestation of everything my necklace could provideâa terrified look.
“Chill out.” Alex put a hand on Troy's shoulder.
Troy's hand didn't leave my necklace, forming a sort of delicate dog leash that weighted me to him.
“That hot freshman is downstairs in the basement. Why don't you go find her?” Alex said, patting Troy on the back.
“Relax, Troy. Leave the poor girl alone,” one of the other football players called out.
Time seemed to stall into slow motion. I heard Brooke yell at Caroline for spilling a drink on the carpet while her stepdad laughed. I saw guys pouring beer from the pitcher at the center of the table and high-fiving each other. I noticed Alex tighten his grip on Troy's shoulder. And I saw Troy raise his other hand and place it on Alex's chest.
But all I felt were fingers around my amulet.
Troy's hand tightened around my necklace as Alex pushed him back. I felt the finely wrought metal bite into the back of my neck and I cried out in pain, my head jerking forward, toward Alex.
I fell backward as the chain broke. Troy still held the necklace in his hand as Alex pushed him against the kitchen wall, cracking the antique phone that hung there.
Hearing the commotion, people rushed into the kitchen as the phone shattered into pieces on the travertine marble floor, springs and shards scampering under the refrigerator and oven.
A piece of the metal sliced across my foot, but I didn't feel it.
Alex, Troy, Brooke, Caroline, and everyone else began to melt together, like a giant bowl of human mashed potatoes. The screeching and shouting became ribbons of color, decorating the intense pain I felt overcoming my chest.
Then sadness and anguish gripped my entire body and wrapped around me, searing every living inch of my flesh like a heated iron whip. The screams, the cries, the outstretched hands of CrÃ©atÃºir all implored my help and attached themselves to me like parasites. Light magic beat against my face as Dark claws reached out and scratched my arms.
The weight of all of them became too heavy. I saw the floor come nearer and nearer until I felt the cool marble next to my cheek.
My left arm fell next to my head as my
birthmark grew a brighter shade of pink. I lifted my head weakly and the last thing I saw before I passed out was the bright red pool of blood forming next to my lacerated foot.
he morning sun moved across my cheek and fell over my eyelid. I lifted my right arm to drape it across my face. With the first muscle twitch, my foot screamed in pain. I winced and gingerly turned from my back onto my left side. As I settled back down into my white marshmallow comforter, I exhaled and buried my face into
Just as I started to drift off again, my eyes snapped open.
Brooke's party. The fight. Troy. Alex.
I sat up in bed as though an electrical paddle was attached to my chest. Except I wasn't suffering from a heart attack.
My hand flew up to my throat, panicked.
Nothing. Nothing from my neck down to my collarbone down to the elastic edging of the black tube top I was still wearing from last night.
I jerked my comforter off my body and swung my legs down onto the carpet. I tried to stand up, but white-hot pain threw me back down on my bed.
“Ow!” I shrieked, and slid off the bed to crumple on the white carpet. I looked at my foot, which was haphazardly bandaged with gauze and surgical tape. With a few Band-Aids thrown on top for good measure (apparently, just in case someone accidentally spilled their beer on me). I gingerly peeled back the surgical tape and saw an oozing, angry purple gash across the top of my foot.
Oh, right. The phone. I think it shattered when Alex threw Troy into it.
My blood iced as I realized that this was the last thing I remembered. I had no recollection of how I got home, no idea of what happened next, no clue if trolls from the Other Realm had come in and possibly played beer pong for a while before they realized I didn't have my necklace on, or perhaps tried to carry my passed-out body into their realm.
I buried my face into the carpet. How could last night have gotten so royally screwed up? My first serious party, and freak Leah finds a way to take embarrassment to a whole different, elemental level.
And Alex? What happened with him?
Still crumpled on the floor, I reached up to my bed and felt around for my phone. Not making contact, I lifted my head up and located it underneath my pillow. As I struggled to reach for it, I froze.
No necklace. No protection. I can see them. They can see me. Do they know? Does Melissa know yet?
I ducked my head back down next to my bed and lay very, very still, as though the CrÃ©atÃºir were like dinosaurs that couldn't see prey if it didn't move.
I brought my left wrist up to my face and saw the red, thick outlines of the
birthmark, much darker than yesterday. It looked like a cattle brand on my wrist.
I buried my face in the carpet again and put my hands over my head.
Maybe I can lie here for the rest of eternity, until I die. I think it only takes like ten days without food or water, right? Hopefully my family will just let me waste away, gradually starving. They probably won't even try to feed me after a few days or so. I'll just lie here, silent, waiting to die while Rhea steals my clothes and Morgana remodels my room into a candle-making studio. Maybe Gia could use the space to hold Muse meetings.
Alex can find a new girlfriend, one who doesn't have to wear jewelry to be a normal teenager at parties.
Yes. This will work.
I'll just lie here until I die.
“Leah, come out here!” my mother's voice called from down the hallway.
I remained on the floor, inhaling the scent of Alex's cologne still clinging to my jeans from last night. “Leah, did you hear me? Come on out!” she called again.
She waited a whole ten seconds before screeching, “GET OUT HERE RIGHT NOW, LEAH WILLOWÂTREE SPENCER!”
Rhea chimed in behind her. “Get out of bed, you lazy loser!”
Mother, who totally does not understand my plight: 1.
I sighed and slowly picked myself up off the carpet. With the aid of my bedpost, I managed to stand upright, albeit with most of my weight on my non-injured, non-mangled foot. I grabbed my cell phone and shoved it into my pocket. Taking a deep breath, I started to drag my bum foot across the carpet, resembling an elderly woman with a prosthetic leg. My hand made contact with the smooth, cool door handle as I looked down at my outfit. My parents probably would have way more questions and assumptions than I'd have answers to or the strength to deny if I showed up at breakfast wearing a black tube top, so I stretched to the side and made contact with a long-sleeved T-shirt on the floor.
The sleeves would shield my wrist from my family. I was still unfolding the shirt on my torso as I wiggled my cell phone out of my pocket and flipped it open.
A little envelope on the screen told me I had 23
Still limping down the hallway, I opened the first messageâfrom Alex. I darted my eyes around the hallway quickly, searching for any signs of Other Realm beings. Thankfully, all I saw were some dust balls and Gia's hair ribbon on the ground. Alex's text said,
Call when you wake up.
I quickly typed a message:
Do you know what happened to my necklace?
I didn't know what I'd do if he was all, “Necklace? Huh?”
Still walking down the hallway, I opened the next text, which was from Brooke:
NEED 2 TALK 2 U! CALL ASAP!! 911!!
I turned a corner and headed toward the kitchen, where my family was eating pancakes and arguing like they do every Sunday morning.
“How was the party last night?” Rhea said with a smirk.
I avoided everyone's gaze and sat down in an empty chair. “It wasn't a party, just a get-together. And it was fine.” I stabbed at a pancake and then briefly looked up.
My dad nodded firmly and smiled. “I'm glad you're enjoying yourself.” He moved to the right a little bit and the rowan bushes that frame our kitchen window came into clear view. On the left bush, a branch wiggled a little bit, ever so slightly. Anyone else would dismiss it, chalk it up to the wind changing directions, a bird foraging for food, a chipmunk burying his stash. Maybe even Slade hiding out, waiting for Rhea to go back to her room so he could climb back into her window.
But I knew better.
The slightest sparkle began to emerge from the bush. Like a passerby at a traffic accident, I couldn't look away even though I knew what was coming. I felt my face begin to grow pale as my eyes remained fixed upon the rowan bush. I held my breath as I waited.
“Don't forget to buy more chamomile tea at the grocery store,” I heard Morgana say. Their conversation seemed very far away as I focused on what was about to unfold outside.
My Shaman birthmark began to ache as the bush turned red. Then, suddenly, the plant grew dark and out of a leafy, open space, a CrÃ©atÃºir appeared. Specifically, a Noves monster. Its doglike mouth chewed on fallen leaves, while his purple-streaked wings folded next to his body. His humanoid head turned and he stared at me, all three rows of teeth visible. He looked like a mini shark, except I'd rather wrestle a Great White than Mr. Noves monster. I'd seen what those things could doâit involved limbs getting ripped off and eyeballs squished out. And that's just during the warm-up.
Not meeting the monster's gaze, I snapped my eyes back to my dad. The monster sat perfectly still, its human head cocked slightly to the side, its orange-eyed gaze still centered on me, flushing me with familiar warmth as I wildly averted my gaze to look at Rhea and Gia. When my dad shifted in his chair and blocked the monster from view, I exhaled.
“Actually, I'm not that hungry. I have a lot of homework,” I said quickly as I stood up, knocking my chair backward. Before my family could protest, I walked out of the room, my eyes darting around searching for signs of CrÃ©atÃºir, the Noves monster, or otherwise.
I'll just ignore them until I get the necklace back. Alex will come over and give it back to me and everything will go back to normal again.
I ran back to my room, nearly knocking my mom's framed etching of her O'Donough family crest from the wall. My cell phone beeped with a message from Alex:
Found it in my car. Will bring over now.
I exhaled into my hands.
Everything will be fine.
I closed my eyes tightly and hummed to myself, trying to block out any messages. I knew if I allowed even one to come through, it would be almost impossible to stop them, to put my necklace back on and resume my attempt at a normal life.
But what about Fiona?
my brain whispered.
What if there really is something wrong?
I opened one eye and quickly scanned my room for any errant messages or Other Realm beings, but it was empty.
See? Nothing to worry about. If there really was something wrong, I'm sure Sulevia would've appeared and told me.
I heard Alex's car pull into the driveway and ran outside before he even had a chance to put the car in park.
“Hey! You have my necklace?” I called as I rushed to the car door, my hand out.
“Leah, you scared the hell out of me. Yeah, I have it. Are you okay? What happened to you last night?” Alex looked up at me, his eyes still bloodshot. He rubbed them and slid on a pair of sunglasses as he got out of the car. His blond hair was sticking up in all different directions, like mini satellites, and his complexion was ashy pale instead of the usual caramel brown.
I hunched my shoulders forward. “I have no idea,” I said as I walked a few feet away and sat down on the meditating bench at the side of my parents' house.
Alex followed me, his face tight, his body floppy. “I thought you were dead or something. You passed out, crying hysterically.” He sat down on the other side of the bench, the inches between us feeling much more like continents. He leaned against the back of the bench and exhaled loudly. I wanted him to reach out and pull me close, to tell me that he liked me again, to look at me the way he did the night before.
“I know,” I said. I leaned forward on my knees and buried my face into my hands.
“You know, I had to sneak you through the window and carry you into your bedroom. I so thought your dad was going to bust me.” Alex looked down and scratched at a cut on his tan leg. “I think someone slipped something in your drink, right? I mean, you only had some champagne and like half a beer.”
I nodded, my head still in my hands. More like, slipped something
me. The bench shifted as Alex leaned forward and put his arm around my shoulders. I sighed with relief.
He still likes me.
“No big deal. It'll be fine. Everyone will forget about it. It just freaked me out,” he said quietly to the back of my head. “And I'm just pissed that I couldn't keep you safe from my drunken friends.”
I laughed bitterly into my hands, but disguised it as a cough.
“Brooke said she really needs to talk to you,” Alex said into my hair.
I lifted my head from my hands and stared straight ahead at a rowan bush. A soft glow of light began to appear. Instead of averting my eyes, I kept them focused on the light as it grew stronger and stronger. A Light CrÃ©atÃºir appeared, dressed in a long white robe.
Over six feet tall and whisper-thin, her electric blue skin was carved with hot pink talismans and symbols. Her eyes of pink light looked around before resting directly on me. I recognized her as Sulevia the Mystical Sorceress, one of Fiona's adopted Light CrÃ©atÃºir sisters.
My mouth grew dry and my hands began to shakeânot just from seeing her again, but due to the fact that she was the first Light being to appear to me. If anyone was going to deliver bad news, it would be her.
She opened her mouth and spoke. Her Other Realm language sounded foreign at first, but I was able to translate it: “Fiona is dead.”
“Leah?” Alex's voice cut through the light.
I slowly turned my head toward Alex, toward his halo of blond curls, toward his perfect forearms laced with ropelike veins underneath caramel skin. Sulevia instantly teleported, disappearing and reappearing next to Alex's head, her skin casting a blue glow across his face.
“Leah, are you okay? Just forget about it. I meant what I said last night,” he said quietly. His bloodshot eyes were wide, his voice soft. “You know that, right?” He searched my face for confirmation, but I was frozen, my veins turned to ice.
She can't be dead. She
â¦ can't be.
I would've sensed it; I would've known.
Alex reached out his hand and I placed mine into it. He turned my hand over and studied my palm before lifting his eyes to mine. With his other hand, he reached into his pocket and pressed my necklace into my palm. My fingers closed around the cool metal, my ears buzzing.
How â¦ what â¦ why â¦