Authors: Rachael Craw
“I’m dying to talk to her about California,” the petite girl says. “I want to start planning.”
“She’s only just off the plane, Lila,” Imogen says.
“She’ll be all over it,” Lila says. “Last days of summer road trip, baby. The four of us – if Kaylee doesn’t bail.”
I feel a stab of jealousy. These are Kitty’s friends, planning a road trip to California. So much for the rebirth of my social life.
“Noooo!” A booming male voice then uproarious laughter.
I turn by reflex, freeze for one brief second of recognition and snap back again. Four young men have crossed the threshold out onto the patio. Jamie is in the middle of them. The booming voice belongs to a bear-sized blond guy, with a buzz cut, mussing Jamie’s hair. “You’re killing me. You’re actually killing me.”
Short of throwing myself over the stone balustrade and trampling the governor’s flowerbed, I’m hemmed in. In full-flight panic, I lift a glass of champagne from a tray left unattended on the table beside me, the waiter reaching for a box of glasses beneath the table. With a furtive glance for any frowning adult eyes, I chug it back then repeat the maneuver with a second glass. The sweet fume of alcohol burns the back of my nostrils, making my eyes water. I hoist my camera up to my chest, let my hair swing out to cover the side of my face and try for a casual sidle around the drinks table, so lightheaded I can’t feel my feet.
I get about three steps round the table.
I close my eyes, bite my lips and turn. Four hulking boys in black tuxedos framed against the full glamour of the governor’s emblazoned reception room. A high-impact, imprinted-forever moment, that tableau. Big band music rising behind me. A thousand twinkling lights. The heady aroma of champagne and a garden full of roses. My blood can’t absorb the alcohol fast enough.
Jamie takes a step towards me, squinting and looking like he’s just finished on the set of a Ralph Lauren advertisement. “It
I know I’m supposed to say something – social convention requires that someone say something – but for the life of me I can’t think what, and now it’s officially awkward. Heat burns my cheeks. “Hey.” I sound breathless and grip the camera like it can hold me upright.
“Kitty said you would be here.” His accent is the same but deeper in tone. The sound of it produces a swoop in my stomach. “She’s been looking for you.”
I can’t remember my plan. Do I have a plan? Aloof? Indifferent? I can feel the boys and girls behind him watching me. “I’ve been helping Miriam.” I lift the camera, grateful for a prop and an excuse. “Where is Kitty?”
“Is this really all the welcome I get?” He tilts his head, a grin plays at his lips and he opens his hands before him. “Everton, you’re not still mad at me, are you?”
I stand immobilised, my mind at war.
When he finds no answering smile, his face falters and his hands fall.
“What? No. Of course not. You took me by surprise. It’s good to see you, Gallagher.”
He lowers his head with a brief flash of teeth. “I don’t think you really mean that, but I’ll take it anyway. Come here, you.” In two strides he crosses the patio.
I barely manage to swing the camera out the way before he grabs me to him, lifting me off the ground. My bees have never felt so good, spine, sternum, arms and legs. Best buzz yet. And, wow, he smells like Christmas. But the sensory onslaught fills me with a deep unexpected ache.
Then a vision eclipses my sight, sudden, violent and shocking. The thwack of bone against bone. Strength in my arms, unfathomable speed as I move – a memory that isn’t my own. A fight, formless, furious. And just like that it disappears.
Jamie laughs. “You got tall, Everton.”
“Yeah.” My head spins as he puts me back on my feet and I grip the edge of the table to avoid stumbling. Another hallucination? I steel myself to look up. He’s taller too, broader, bigger, ridiculously handsome. I want to cry.
He holds me with his stare, grey eyes, darker and more dangerous than his sister’s. He drops his voice. “I’m really sorry about your mother.” Simple, direct, sincere. “She was brilliant.”
There’s no air in me to speak, but I nod.
He studies my face and puts his hand on my arm, turning me away from his friends. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“I saw Miriam inside.”
“She looks great.”
I nod again. The giddy feeling hasn’t lifted. I reach for another glass of champagne but the waiter is standing up and the tray is back in his hands. He offers me orange juice, warning in his eyes. I smile shakily and take it. Lips pinched, he turns his back and walks away.
“So do you,” Jamie says. “Look great, I mean.”
There’s a chinking sound, a splash of juice, a sting in my palm, glass falling at my feet and a stain spreading on the front of my dress. “Oh, crap.”
“Whoa,” Jamie says. “Here, let me.” He grabs a napkin from the table, takes the broken stem of the glass and turns my hand palm up. A large shard has lodged in the base of my thumb. Roaring fills my ears and Jamie’s touch sends pins and needles zapping up my arm.
“Are you okay?” The petite girl, Lila, appears beside us.
“Ouch!” The big blond bear sticks his head in the gap. “Flesh wound.”
If I had any blood left in my face, I would burn red. Making a public display of myself is high on my list of things I would rather die than endure. Here I am with an audience of strangers, Team-Jamie strangers, witnessing my public humiliation.
I don’t think. I pull the shard out.
A collective groan of horror goes up around the group. It was a full inch deep and the glass gleams red and drips from the tip. Blood bubbles from the hole in my hand and we all stand there staring as it wells. Jamie snaps to attention and clamps the napkin over it, cupping my hand in both of his, his eyebrows high. “You don’t know your own strength.”
“Triage!” the blond bear barks. He claps his ham-sized hand on another boy’s shoulder. “Abe, the infirmary!”
But Abe squints at me, recognition dawning in his eyes. His chocolate-brown face dimples with a fiendish smile and he points from the elbow, waiting for Jamie to confirm. “Is that who I think it is?”
Immediately they are familiar to me and I quickly find the context. Under a willow by the Border River. I turn my glare on Jamie and find his rueful expression.
“You guys remember Evangeline Everton,” Jamie says, squeezing my hand as he bites back his grin.
The big blond bear lets out a long, “Ooooh,” and elbows the third boy, who joins him in theatrical chorus.
I nearly bite through my tongue.
Jamie clears his throat. “This is Abe Lincoln.” Abe gives me a wide smile. I blink at his name but manage a nod. “Pete Tilson.” The dark-haired boy next to the blond bear smirks and raises his hand. “And Gil Bishop.” I remember well enough – Mr President, Pete and The Bishop.
“Shoulda cut the bastard with the shiv, Van,” the Bishop says, surprising me with a shortening of my name I haven’t heard since Pennsylvania. The rest of the group snort and laugh.
My ears ring and the dizziness reaches a peak.
“Let’s find someplace to get you cleaned up,” Jamie says.
“It’s not that bad,” I mutter.
With a doubtful look, he unfolds the napkin. The group winces at the oozing red hole. My head swoons.
“Easy.” He staunches the flow and wraps a steadying arm around my waist. Phenomenal tingling sweeps through my side where I press against him. If he lets me go, I’ll hit the dirt.
“We can cut through to the library,” Abe says.
“Give us a little space, you lot,” Jamie says.
They make way but trail behind us.
Never could I have imagined a worst-case scenario as elaborate as this: that the first time I face Jamie in three years is in a stained gown, at the Governor’s Ball where I swoon at my own blood, humiliated again before the very same set of boys.
Worse yet, when we cross the threshold into the brightly lit reception hall, my pins and needles amplify to a painful stabbing. I grip Jamie’s arm and almost cry out.
“Are you okay?” he murmurs.
I nod, but the thunder in my chest and the ocean pounding in my ears alarms me. The light takes on the strange sharpened quality I remember from the cafe with Kitty. I search the crowd, looking for her, needing to see her, that strange anxiety tightening inside me. “Where’s Kitty?”
Then I spot her across the room. Jamie leads me between guests. People turn, expressing concern when they see the blood-soaked napkin and how Jamie holds me up. But all I can focus on is Kitty surrounded by a crowd of people. I recognise Aiden, Richard, Kaylee. Leonard stands there with an older man who looks so much like Richard it has to be the governor. But my eyes are only for Kitty.
Someone jostles the group. Kitty jumps back. Others exclaim. Aiden steadies her with a hand on her arm, Richard with a hand on her back. Someone has dropped a glass. We draw closer. Aiden goes to find a cloth. Leonard puts his hand on Kitty’s shoulder. Her dress is stained. Kaylee lurches unsteadily towards Kitty, commiserates, patting her back. Richard hooks his arm around Kaylee’s waist and steers her away. Kitty looks up and spots Jamie leading me through the crowd.
She comes towards me, her left leg saturated, the baby blue chiffon dark where the drink has soaked through. “You cannot be serious. Not you too? Oh, crumbs, look at your hand!”
“Kit,” I rasp, letting Jamie go, reaching for her. A sickening high-pitched whine pierces my eardrum.
“So unfair,” she grumbles and laughs. “We were both looking so good!” She flings her arms around my neck and I jolt like I’ve been plugged into an electrical socket. A tray of glasses carried by a waiter explodes beside us. Electricity burns in my spine, down my legs, through my arms and chest. I bite hard on my lip to stifle a scream and blood fills my mouth. The clamour in my head reaches a crescendo as I fall backwards slowly, endlessly, through space. My eyes lock on Kitty; her mouth open in the shape of a perfect “o”.
When will I hit the floor? I can’t see. My pulse thrashes. I want to call out. Someone cries. Movement. Urgent voices. I must be on the floor already because the surface under me feels cold and hard. Someone touches me. A muffled grunt. I’m hoisted up, unable to resist or cooperate. Despite my inner riot, a wonderful smell reaches through the murk, erasing everything else. Warm skin against my face – an aroma that conjures the forest, the river, irresistible and intoxicating. I can’t do anything but breathe, so I breathe hungrily.
A low voice vibrates against my cheek. Higher anxious voices demand. The low voice soothes. Soon, the strong arms lift me onto a cool, soft surface. The incredible-smelling skin is above me then moving away. I want to get up and follow it.
Warm hands touch my face and stroke my arm. Someone murmurs. The storm drowns it all.
The electric current becomes a tepid fizz. Colours flicker behind my eyes. Blurred images. Faces. A scrolling catalogue of faces. My Pennsylvania friends, my math teacher from last year. Mom. I lock in on her face and feel bruised in my chest. They scroll again and this time there are others: Barb, Aiden, Lila, Jamie. His face draws me like a zoom lens, my body humming its own response.
The images flick again and this time I see Kitty. She absorbs my focus with unshakeable urgency and my heart drums. Urgency becomes anxiety. Anxiety lurches to fear. Fear swallows me whole.
A shadow looms, obscuring Kitty’s face. I want to cry out, but something more powerful takes hold of me.
I jerk up from the pillow, disorientated in the lamplight. I don’t know where I am. Panic burns up all the oxygen in my system and I gasp for air.
“Evie?” Miriam stands, gripping the ornate footboard, her hand to her mouth like she’s witnessed a calamity. I see a gilt mirror, brocade drapes, and hear the distant sound of big band music floating through the open window. We’re still at the Governor’s Ball. And only one thing matters.
“Where is she?” My throat scrapes, my lip throbs, my head spins. A strange tight feeling tugs behind my bellybutton. I don’t wait for an answer but scramble to my feet, nearly careening into a gleaming chest of drawers with the dizzying rush of blood.
Miriam steadies me. “Evie, sit down.”
I push past her and stagger across the room, banging my hip against the footboard. I reach the door and fumble with uncooperative hands to open it. It won’t give.
“Stop. I need to talk to you.”
I turn in circles, holding my head. “You don’t understand. Where is …? I have to find … she’s not …” I can’t say it and pull at the handle, too weak to wrench it.
She holds up a key then closes it in her fist.
I stare at her balled hand and almost growl. “Open the door.”
“No.” She doesn’t move. “You need to listen–”
“Open the damn door, Miriam!” I thrust my hand out, horrified by the loss of time, static burning me up. I barely notice my wound has been bandaged or the faint ache in my thumb. “Give it to me. I don’t have time to explain. You won’t get it – just – I have to – I have to–”
“What? You have to what?” Miriam searches my face, her eyes fierce.
Pressure builds in my chest and the strange tightness in my stomach constricts. The urge to tear the key from her hand seizes me. Her mouth hardens and she puts her hand behind her back. Next, I want to push her to the ground and force the key from her grip. She steps towards me. “Try it, kid.”
I catch my breath. Has the intent shown in my face? “Please,” I groan. “You don’t understand.”
“You wanna bet?” She exhales. “There’s no way I’m letting you out of this room until you tell me what you want to do to Kitty.”
“Do?” I can’t get a hold on the word, astounded by her knowledge that it’s Kitty I want. “Do?”
“You heard me.”
“She’s – she’s not safe.”
“Not any more, no.” Her eyes narrow. “Because why? Because she’s dangerous?”
She couldn’t surprise me more if she punched me. “Dangerous?”
“Answer me, Evangeline.”
A breeze ruffles the drapes at the window. It brings the sound of the band from the rotunda, the murmur of voices from the patio and beyond that a faint whimper on the wind, the cry of a woman or child, the sound of fear. It grips me like it has come straight from my nightmare.