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Authors: A E Rought

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BOOK: Tainted
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The smell hits me when I open the back door, all syrup and butter. My spirit lifts every time I walk into this house. I swear if doctors gave out a prescription to visit here, this house would cure depression. Well, except for the white cat sitting at the top of the back steps, giving me the feline version of stinkeye.

Renfield came to live with me until the Gentrys can find a place to rent that allows pets. Or their house is rebuilt, if Paul can talk them into it.

“I told you I couldn’t bring Em back today,” I explain to Renfield, hands out and palms up. His gaze is unwavering and unforgiving. “You know how her mom is.”

Why am I pleading with a cat?

Gran’s battered slippers, then the rest of her, appear at the head of the stairs as she shoos Emma’s pet out of my way. “He’s always cross,” she says, and straightens her apron, “He’s a cat.”

As if that explains everything.

“Tomorrow,” I promise him. “I’ll bring her here after school.”

“Your place is set, Alex,” Grandpa tells me over his Farmer’s Almanac. In other words, “sit down, because you’re getting a talking-to”. He holds me in a blue-eyed, measuring glance before looking down at the almanac again. “Says here it’s going to be the worst winter in a century, Judy.”

“Those books say that every other year, I swear,” Gran says as she bustles to the stove and flips pancakes on the griddle.

“So,” Grandpa sticks his thumb in his book, “Where’ve you been already this morning?”

“You know the boy’s almost grown,” Gran wields the spatula like she might swat him with it.

“Yes, I’m aware.” Grandpa gives me a sideways glance. “We kept good tabs on his mother, doesn’t hurt to follow suit with him.”

“Alex doesn’t cause trouble, just like Elle didn’t either.” Gran pats my hand and places a stack of steaming pancakes in front of me.

The mention of Mom brings questions about Paul to mind. Why did he look at Mom’s picture like that? Did they have an affair, or was it just a crush on his part? And the one I shouldn’t wonder, but can’t stop myself: would she be alive now if she’d left Dad for Paul?

Watching my grandparents, their memories and their perfect stable life, I know I can’t cast shadows over my mother’s memory. The way their faces brighten at her mention, anyone can tell she is the sunlight in their memories. And mine, even though I had to bury those feelings deep around my dad. Like I’ll have to bury these questions – knowing the answer isn’t worth other people’s pain.

Renfield, who’s seemingly forgiven me, wends between my ankles, then lays on my toes.

“So,” insists Grandpa, “What have you been up to this morning?”

“Jason’s Bronco died when we left the lock-in,” I explain. “So we drove everyone home.” I drop my gaze, and fidget with my fork. “Then I stopped at the lab and talked to Paul.”

Grandpa lets out a long sigh, the exact one I knew was coming.

Disapproval rings in every syllable when he says, “I told you we could take care of everything you need.”

My grandparents hated my dad. They don’t like his money, either. If they had their way, they would support me entirely and remove me from Dad’s world, and Ascension Labs. They are also aware I am forever tied to that place because of what my dad did to me – I’m a weekly phoenix and that place is my fire.

With a heavy sigh, and a sympathetic look from Gran, I explain why I went to Paul. Grandpa served in the military; he’s a sucker for honor, the strength of a handshake and a man’s integrity. After some half-hearted grumbling, Grandpa agrees that it’s the right thing to do, “Given what your father did to them.”

“You’re looking awful tired,” Gran interjects into the conversation.

“Well, I have been awake since Friday night,” and my injection, doesn’t need to be added. I haven’t slept a single Friday night since Dad brought me back to life.

“Then maybe you should have a nap. You’ll never make it until bedtime.”

I’m sure I could, but the look Gran gives me when Grandpa’s not paying attention broadcasts “take the excuse and escape”.

“You’re right. I don’t want to crash too early, otherwise I’ll be up way before school.”

Sliding my chair back, I dislodge the white cat from my feet. Renfield gives me a withering look from under the table while I take care of my dirty dishes. He doesn’t complain when I pick him up, though.

“Let me know if you need any help,” I offer, before climbing the stairs to my bedroom.

Gran won’t ask. She sent me away for a reason. Some habits die hard, even when they’re not mine.

Frost glitters in the corners of the windowpanes, the ever-present yellow curtains making the room sunny and inviting when I step in. With the door closed, I let the cat down, peel my clothes off down to my boxers and kick the pile toward the wash basket. A soft click from my electric blanket tells me Gran knew I was going to crawl into bed, even if she acted like she was pretending. She turned it on to warm up the bed for me.

I’ve never managed to be in this room without thinking about the night Em and I slept here. Her mother has doggedly made sure
that
hasn’t happened since. I wish I could go back to that moment. Just Em and me, no future or pasts.

“Wish in one hand, spit in the other…” Grandpa would say.

Shaking my head, I check my cell phone. Tension vines around my guts, tightens as the screen lights up. Then it releases and disappears. No answer from Em. She’ll sleep most of the day knowing her.

No messages from Hailey, either.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that she’s ramping up her annoyance campaign for a reason. Hailey’s the spooky kind of brilliant, with a side order of devious selfishness. Whatever she’s planning will not end well – when Hailey’s involved, happy endings are rare.

A white blur of motion coincides with me pulling the covers back. It’s been a race for bed space since the cat came here. Now Renfield sprawls across the mattress, sucking up all the heat from the electric blanket before I can crawl in. The battle for the bed is short, ending with me in the covers and him out. The heavy denim patchwork weighs me down, and the cat climbs atop and settles right over my heart like he knows it’s Daniel’s too.

Or maybe he’s shielding me from Hailey.

CHAPTER FOUR

Monday morning traffic sputters down the road. Light pours from Mugz-n-Chugz and the school, giving the street a false sense of life on this cloudy, dark side of dawn. Three shadows huddle in the down-turned light of the side door. The harsh, artificial glow bounces from the girls’ hoods as they watch me buy three coffees and Bree’s chai.

I’m sure they think I’m being kind. I’m no saint.

This is my new routine, intentionally crafted to keep my hands occupied with drink carriers. The physical weight somehow stops me from acting on the deep-seated, demanding impulses I know aren’t entirely my own. Every day’s first sighting of Emma’s face is like Christmas morning, and I burn to sweep the gift of her into my arms.

Steam rises from the cup lids, curling like the anticipation roiling in my gut while I stand on the curb and wait for my chance to cross. The traffic clears enough for me to sprint between cars to the grounds of Shelley High. Just a few more steps, a turn of her head and I know it will happen again, like it does every morning that I see her. I thought falling for Emma on my own might numb the rush, maybe quiet his voice in me. Nothing is quiet around Emma, everything is amplified.

Em laughs, makes a half-hearted bat at Jason for something and my pulse picks up a notch. Bree’s white mitten flashes in the dim light when she waves. Jason nods a greeting. Then Em turns. For a second, pale blond hair blows over her face and blocks my view.

The gust of wind dies. Her hair settles to her shoulders, her blue eyes meet mine.

Suddenly he’s so very
there
.
I’m a ghost in my own skin. Daniel might as well be alive and running this one-man show.
His heartbeat crashes in my ears.
His
memories fill my head, crystal-clear, high-definition images flashing, layering like film cells over what I see.

One blink and the memories clear. Now, I see her through Daniel’s eyes. The curves, the smile, the way her nose scrunches when she smiles. The high is ridiculous, makes his heart race in my chest like a foreign thing. Every heartbeat declares Emma’s the girl he lived for. Hope. Love. Dreams. A future like Em and I can never really have.

Does she know? Does she see his ghost in me? Pressure flares on every nerve, dragging me towards Emma like a satellite falling out of orbit and crashing to Earth.

Daniel exists in these moments
,
because of her.

“Hey.” The word comes out of my mouth, and I’m never sure these first words are mine.

“Hi.” Emma’s smile widens, highlighting her freckles and the blue in her eyes.

“Oh, here,” Jason says, rolling his eyes like a girl. “Let me take the drinks.”

Jason lifts the carriers from my hands, and the motion shakes Daniel’s hold. We’re now equals in this skin, and I use the distraction to wrap Emma to me.

“PDA,” Bree warns, then sips her chai. “You’re going to get kicked out.”

Public Displays of Affection are strictly prohibited at Shelley High. I don’t care. Neither does Em. She hooks the fingers of her free hand in my jacket collar, and pulls me in for a kiss. I hover close for a second, feel her breath warm my lips. The school’s prudish restrictions can bite me. The dip down to her mouth is excruciatingly long, never over fast enough. Our lips meet, a shock on my sensitive nerves in the best way, then I press hers apart. God, she tastes so good, sweet and warm. I ratchet my arms tighter, squeezing her to my chest.

Bree makes an exasperated little snort. Jason groans. And Emma flips the world a middle finger.

I couldn’t agree more.

Then my cell phone, on silent, vibrates in my pocket and kills the thrill.

Ignoring it, I focus on Em instead, breaking our kiss, letting what’s left of Daniel see her through our eyes. I know from experience he’ll slip away soon, receding to disconnected pieces, sheltering in his hidden memories.

She gives me a wink, which I return on instinct, with my left eye –
his left eye
– something Em told me Daniel always did.

With that thought, Daniel’s gone again.

“Thanks for the chai,” Bree says, upending the cup and draining it.

“And the coffee,” Jason adds. He takes Bree’s empty cup, and sucks his down on the way to the trash can.

“Sorry I didn’t respond to your text last night,” Emma tells me. “My phone died again. Come on,” she says and tugs on my hand. “Let’s get out of the wind.”

We follow our friends into the semi-shelter of the doorway, and drink down our coffees.

Chatter and activity fill the halls when we step in, the sounds reverberating and multiplying. The whispers have died down, the sneaky glances and open glares, too. I’ve become one of the crowd, the truth of what happened to Daniel is still hidden beneath my scars. As long as no one knows, I’m just one of them – if the secret is exposed, suddenly I’ll be a monster. At the bank of lockers by the main office I reach for Em’s lock, and she nudges me with her hip.

“Nope,” she says, “I got this.”

“Race you, then.”

My lock spins, the door opens and Em’s still turning her dial.

“No fair.” She gives me a pouty face, and shakes her cast at me. “You have two hands.”

Drawn like a magnet to her, I stroke her throat, then run my fingers down her arms, taking her winter jacket off as I do. Leaning close enough to drown in the blue of her eyes, I whisper, “All the better to touch you with.”

A satisfying shade of pink floods her cheeks.

“I love making you blush,” I say, and nuzzle her ear.

For the second time, my cell phone buzzes, like whoever’s dialing is intent on ruining my morning. This time, Emma feels it, where her hand has slipped down and her thumb rides the ridge of my pocket. Her eyebrows arch, she tips her head, then says, “You’d better get that,” as she steps back and then stuffs books into her bag. “It might be important.”

Not as important as she is.

“I’ll check it on my way to class.” I grab my morning books from the top shelf. “And I’ll see you at lunch.”

“Deal.” She pops up on her toes, acts like she’s going to kiss me again, then smiles that impish, freckle-scrunching grin and walks away.

“Hey!” I grump. How can she tease like that?

Emma shakes her butt a little, then winks at me over her shoulder. “Always gonna leave you wanting more,” she says, and makes a kissy face before tossing her hair over her shoulder and disappearing into the crowd.

If she knew how those flirtations affect my heart rate, she might not tease me like that.

Walking down the Performing Arts hall toward my second most hated class, I pull my cellphone free and check the screen. Sure enough. There are three messages waiting for me. Internally cringing from what may very well be Hailey and another harassing text, or picture, I open up the message program.

One from Hailey. By the looks it came in the middle of the night while I slept. The next two texts are from Paul. Refusing to deal with her, I delete it without reading, and move on to Paul’s messages.

First:

Getting ready to talk to Emma’s dad. I have facts, figures and brochures at the ready.

And then:

Apparently, her mother is insisting on attending the meeting, too. I’ll keep you informed.

Of course she is. Mrs Gentry is the most controlling, ride-your-ass parent I’ve ever known. I almost feel sorry for Paul. When he inherited my mess of a life, Mrs Gentry came along as the booby prize. Just a couple more hours and we’ll know if the Gentrys accept or shoot down our offer. Knowing the Gentrys, the latter is more likely the case.

The biggest surprise in the rest of my morning? Paul’s third text around 9.30am.

He, it seems, is a miracle worker. Emma’s parents accepted the offer. And according to the texts, someone, somewhere called in a cosmic favor and made the impossible happen. According to the first text it took a lot to convince her. Apparently Mrs Gentry used Emma as a leverage tool. The second message stated after much debating on her part and much guilt-tripping on Emma’s dad’s part they accepted the offer.

BOOK: Tainted
5.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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