At the end of class, someone tapped me on the shoulder, and I jumped.
I turned to see Charisse standing next to my desk. The lights were on now.
"It's okay, Katie. The movie has been turned off." Charisse was staring at me quizzically. "Why did you have your eyes covered? Are you feeling all right? You don't look very good."
"I'm okay." I began gathering up my things quickly. "Let's just get out of here."
"I can take you home," Charisse said.
"No, I'm fine," I replied.
We walked out into the hall. Charisse was eyeing me just as Irina had – as if I were in imminent danger of collapsing.
I made an effort to smile. "I'm better, really." I decided I would make that be true. I still felt unsteady, but the strange night call had subsided. At the very least, I felt like I could think straight. As long as I avoided reflective surfaces and the face of the harsh-featured man, I would be fine.
"What happened in the middle of the movie? Why did you run out of class like that?"
I knew I couldn't tell Charisse that I was losing my mind. "I-I suddenly felt very ill. But luckily, it wore off."
I figured it would be a good idea to change the subject. I didn't want to discuss the weird things that were happening right now. Charisse would never understand. "So where were you and Branden? It's not like you guys to cut it so close. You were almost late, and you know that's an automatic detention."
Charisse smiled mysteriously. "Branden had a question to ask me – something very important."
"About the quiz?"
Charisse giggled. "No."
"Then what was it?"
"I'll tell you later. Right now, it's a secret."
"I'll tell you, I promise. I'm not trying to be mysterious. I just told Branden I wouldn't tell anybody until he gets everything ready."
"You know you're only making me want to know more."
Charisse laughed. "The news will be worth the wait, trust me." She paused in the busy hallway and looked at me closely. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine." Charisse continued to stare at me. "Really."
"All right," Charisse said. "I'll see you at lunch. If you still aren't looking good then, I am definitely taking you home."
I spent the next two classes avoiding glass or anything that could hold a reflection. I was still a little rattled, but I was feeling close to normal again as I made my way into the cafeteria for lunch.
I went through the line and bought a bottle of juice and a pack of crackers. I wasn't quite feeling up to a full meal yet. I spotted Charisse and Branden at a table and began to walk toward them.
Someone stepped into my path, and I was startled. I looked up, and I was relieved to see it was only Simon. Of course it's only Simon, I thought to myself. Were you expecting someone else? I realized that for just a moment, I had had a crazy idea that the man from the mirror had found me. I told myself not to be so jumpy.
Simon held up a small envelope. "This is for you."
I looked at the envelope, puzzled. I had no idea what could be in it. "Thanks."
Simon continued on his way toward a table where Irina sat waiting for him, beaming.
I went over to join Charisse and Branden.
Charisse looked up as I sat down. "I'm glad to see you're looking better."
"I'm definitely feeling better, thanks."
"So what happened?" Branden asked. "It looked like you were going to barf in English class."
Charisse frowned and kicked him under the table.
Branden winced and shot Charisse an injured glance. "Ow. There's no need for violence."
"There is as long as you say silly things," Charisse replied.
Branden and Charisse were glaring at each other playfully, so I opened Simon's envelope, knowing I wouldn't be observed.
I pulled a card out with a big red heart on the front. On the inside Simon had written, 'I'm thinking only of you.'
I glanced up, looking for Simon. I spied his table. He was already watching me. When I caught his eye, he smiled and waved.
I smiled back. The card was really thoughtful and so was Simon himself. I felt a rush of affection for him. At the same time, I felt a wave of sadness wash over me. I wished my feelings for him were as strong as his were for me.
I made it through the rest of the day without a repeat of the visual disturbances that had plagued me earlier. I was in a relatively good frame of mind as I walked home. I decided that if the visions of the strange man returned, that I would just ignore them. I would be in control of my own mind. But I was still worried about Simon's brother, James. I hoped that he would return home soon. I hoped, too, that James would be cleared of the shooting. He really had been trying hard to straighten out lately. James was a senior and wanted to go to college, but his past record was against him. I wanted to see him make it.
When I got home, GM was already there – she ran her graphic design business out of her home office. So she was usually around when I returned home after school.
I knew she'd be horrified if I told her I'd been seeing things that weren't there, so I didn't say anything to her about my strange day at school. Instead, I hurried up to my room. I figured I should do some research online. I'd decided that I would ignore the dark-haired man if I saw him again, but I still wanted to know what was happening. Maybe I could find out something about the legends of Krov that could explain what was going on with me. Both my mother and I had been born in Krov – and apparently both of us had seen strange things. Maybe there was a way to stop the visions from happening again.
I searched, but all I found was frustration. Not only was there nothing online about superstitions or folklore of Krov, there was nothing about Krov at all. It was as if the town of Krov didn't exist.
I thought back to what Aleksandr had said in the kitchen – he had mentioned spirits, vampires, and something called the Leshi. Searching on spirits and vampires brought up more results than I could possibly sift through. I did read some of them, though, but none of them seemed to be related to my situation. Searching on the Leshi simply told me that he was a Russian nature spirit – a green-haired guardian of forests and animals who could change his appearance. I read that when impersonating a human, he had bright eyes and wore his shoes on backwards. As Aleksandr had said, he seemed to be a good fellow, but the Leshi didn't seem to have anything to do with me.
I did a final search on visions, but that search had more results than I could realistically go through, too. I decided to give up on my research.
I sat back in my chair and sighed. There really didn't seem to be any information available on people from Krov who had visions. Could I have imagined the visions? Could my subconscious have gotten carried away after Galina had suggested my mother was murdered? I'd considered that possibility once before, and I was starting to lean in that direction again. Maybe the scene in the kitchen had been harder on me than I'd realized. Maybe I just needed some rest and things would get better.
I got started on my homework, and then later that evening I helped GM make dinner.
GM didn't seem to notice that anything was wrong with me, so I began to feel like things were back to normal.
Right after dinner I received a text from Simon saying that James had returned home and everything was fine – he would give me the details tomorrow. I was enormously relieved, and I texted back how happy I was that James was okay.
As the evening wore on, the night calling remained at bay, allowing me to concentrate on my homework and finish it properly.
I went to bed feeling more normal than I had in weeks.
In the morning, I woke up with the alarm and approached the bathroom and its mirror with more than a little apprehension. I didn't want a repeat of the weirdness I had gone through yesterday.
I took a deep breath as I switched on the light and peered into the mirror. I braced myself for the reappearance of the dark-haired man. But the man's face did not materialize, and I was able to finish my morning routine without anything bizarre happening.
I thought longingly that I could get used to that.
I made my way to school, feeling cautiously optimistic about the day ahead. As I entered the schoolyard, I spotted Charisse and Branden at their usual picnic table. Charisse was sitting on the table, and Branden was standing in front of her. They were leaning their heads together so that their foreheads were touching, and both sets of their hands were intertwined.
I stopped just short of the picnic table. I decided not to bother them – they didn't look like they were in the mood for conversation.
I turned around, looking for Simon. As I did so, I was startled to spot someone who was familiar in exactly the wrong way. Just behind a small group of students was the dark-haired, blue-eyed man. In the flesh he was tall and younger than he had appeared in the mirror – he was clearly my age or a year or two older – but his features were still set in harsh lines, and the look in his eyes was still dangerous.
His gaze met mine, and I saw anger flash in his eyes.
A stab of fear ran through me, but I started toward him.
Whoever he was, I was going to find out what was going on.
I turned to see Simon walking toward me, grinning.
I was happy to see him, but I couldn't lose sight of the strange guy who'd been invading my mind.
I turned back quickly, and although I was facing the same group of students, I could no longer see the guy from the mirror. I stood on my toes and scanned the crowd.
He was nowhere to be seen.
"Who are you looking for?" Simon was standing beside me now.
"Uh, no one," I said. Could I be hallucinating? Maybe I wasn't back to normal like I had thought. I looked up at Simon. He was still grinning and didn't seem to notice that anything was wrong. I pushed my worry aside.
"Hi, Simon," I said. "So, James is okay?"
"Yeah." Simon sighed in relief. "It was a pretty weird set of circumstances, but he made it home safely last night. And we know for a fact that he didn't shoot anybody. He's even back at school today. We rode in together."
"I'm really happy to hear that, Simon. What happened?"
"Well, like I said, it was kind of weird. You know Derek Finlay?"
"The guy who takes all the photographs? He's a senior?"
"Yeah, that's the one. He and James are friends, and James went out with him on Sunday to help with something called a 'mentored advanced project' that Derek has been working on."
"Wow. James really is getting serious about school, isn't he?"
"Yeah. The two of them went out to the forest – to that stream that runs through a fruit grove to take some photos. Supposedly, there's been some paranormal activity in the area. They wanted to see if they could photograph something cool. You know – it's the spot where they say that witch Elspeth hid before she founded the town."
"Elspeth wasn't a witch," I protested. "That was narrow-minded superstition on the part of her accusers."
Simon smiled. "Okay, then. So, she wasn't a witch. Whatever she was, James and Derek went down to the spot where her original hiding place was supposed to be in the Old Grove. They found two men in the grove already. They were standing in front of a huge fire. James said it was nearly as big as the bonfires they have around homecoming games. One of the guys was dressed pretty normally, but the other was wearing a ton of furs. He even had a fur hood that covered his face. James and Derek figured the fire was dangerous and watched the two men for a few minutes, trying to figure out what to do about it. While they were watching, the guy in the furs suddenly took off and ran away into the woods. The other guy went after him. James and Derek chased them – you know, trying to get them to come back and put out the fire. They couldn't catch the guys, though. So, James and Derek went back to try to put out the fire themselves. And that's when the police showed up. Followed by the fire department."
"Oh, no," I said. "The police showed up just in time to get the wrong impression."
Simon smiled ruefully. "Exactly. Somebody saw the fire and called the police. And they caught James and Derek with the fire and didn't believe them when they said they didn't set it. So, the two of them stayed in a holding cell overnight."
"Overnight?" I asked. "They didn't call your parents or Derek's? They just let you guys worry?"
Simon sighed. "They're both eighteen, and they were both embarrassed. They didn't want anybody to know they'd been hauled in. So, they didn't call anybody. On Monday, the original witness – the woman who called the police came in and said they weren't the two she saw start the fire. She described the normal guy and the one in the furs. James and Derek were free."
"So, James wasn't anywhere near the liquor store robbery Sunday night," I said.
I was puzzled. "Why did they think it was James, then?"
"The guy who shot the clerk was about the same height and weight and was wearing a ski mask. And James had been in there several times in the past trying to buy alcohol and had been turned away for being underage. The last time James was thrown out – which was some time ago – he'd gotten really angry and had made threats. The clerk just kind of guessed."
"That's quite a guess," I said. "But if the police had James in custody already for the fire, why were they out looking for him in connection with the liquor store robbery?"
"The state police are the ones who arrested James and Derek in the forest – the forest is a state landmark or something, so it's under their jurisdiction. The county police are the ones who were called about the liquor store robbery. So, it was two separate groups of police. And since the state police can vouch for James's whereabouts, the county police know for a fact that James is innocent."
"Wow. That really is a weird set of circumstances. You and your parents must be really relieved."
Simon ran a hand over his face. "We are. Believe me. Oh, and get this. There was a break-in here at the school on Saturday night. Someone broke into the main office and stole all of the permanent records. Whoever it was broke into the library, too, and stole all the yearbooks."
I was surprised. "Someone stole all of the yearbooks? Who would want them? And why didn't anybody tell us? I didn't hear anything about the school being broken into."
"Yeah, well, the school's trying to keep it quiet. The only reason I heard about it was because the police came by again last night to question James about it. They didn't have anything definite – they thought maybe he was trying to get rid of his permanent record or something. Of course, the records are all kept electronically, too. The paper stuff's just back-up for people who like things done the old-fashioned way."
I had to shake my head. "I know this is a small town, but this is starting to get silly. James is hardly the only troublemaker in town."
Simon gave me an injured look.
"Sorry," I said. "He's hardly the only former troublemaker in town. Which police came looking for him this time?"
"County. But Simon was with me Saturday night. I was free since you were busy."
I felt a momentary twinge of guilt, and Simon continued.
"We went out for pizza, and then we came home and played a video game – Realms of Night. We could even tell the police exactly where we left off in the game. Our parents were home, too."
"So, James had a solid alibi for the Saturday and Sunday night robberies here in Elspeth's Grove."
"Yeah. We're all pretty grateful for that. James is doing so well that we don't what to see anything get him off track."
The first bell rang warning us that it was time to head inside for homeroom.
Simon reached down to pick up his backpack, and I turned to look at Charisse and Branden.
The two of them remained as before with foreheads touching and fingers intertwined. As far as I could tell, they hadn't moved at all.
I turned back to Simon. "I think we shouldn't interrupt our two lovebirds over there. I have a feeling they'll make it in on time somehow."
Simon glanced at them and then looked back and me. There was a strange expression on his face. "They look happy."
I felt uncomfortable under his gaze. "They do."
I looked away and went inside with Simon following me.
We stopped at my locker.
"I still have to make it up to you for missing lunch yesterday," Simon said.
"Simon—" I began.
"I insist." He walked off, grinning.
I rested my forehead against the cool metal of my locker and felt another twinge of guilt. I liked being with Simon. A lot. But what I felt for him was warm and comfortable rather than all-consuming. It was certainly nothing like what was going on between Branden and Charisse. I had a feeling I should talk to Simon about it, but I also felt like I should give him some time. After what he'd been through with James, he surely needed a few trouble-free days.
I went to homeroom and first period, and my mind kept drifting back at intervals to Simon. I was still thinking of him when I reached second-period English. I paused before the door. Suddenly, I remembered that we were scheduled to watch the second half of the play today – we'd only made it through the first half yesterday.
A flash of panic ran through me. I didn't want to see the strange guy in the TV screen again – especially not now after I'd hallucinated seeing him out in the schoolyard. What if I saw him step out of the screen? I bit my lip. I ordered myself not to panic no matter what happened.
I went into the classroom.
I was surprised to see a strange man sitting at Mr. Del Gatto's desk – but it was not the one I'd feared seeing. The man at the desk was clearly a substitute. He was young and his hair was so sleek and flattened with gel that it was hard to tell what color it was. He had a deep tan and wore a large, ostentatious ring with a red stone in it. I had a feeling a lot of the girls in the class would find him good-looking, but to me he was just a little too sleek and glossy.
Looking at him, I felt my heart sink further. If he was indeed a substitute for Mr. Del Gatto, not only were we going to finish out the play – which wouldn't last the entire period – we might even start another movie, so he wouldn't have to teach anything. I wasn't going to be free of the TV screen for the entire period.
As I sat down at my desk, the sub looked up at me and flashed me a bright white smile. I looked away. The man was giving off a decidedly oily vibe.
I glanced around the room. Charisse and Branden hadn't arrived yet. I figured that the two of them would come very close to being late again, and I wondered if the sub was the forgiving type or the kind who gave out detentions to let everybody know there would be no hijinks just because he was a sub. Theoretically, teachers were supposed to give detentions automatically to students who were late. Was this sub a stickler?
I glanced over at him and found he was staring at me. I looked away again quickly.
I became very interested in the rest of the classroom again.
Turning in my seat I saw Irina standing by the door, making a show of talking to her two best friends, Bryony and Annamaria, and playing with the silky white scarf that she wore. I thought for a moment that they might be talking about me, but they glanced at the teacher's desk several times and giggled. I realized that they were enamored of the sub.
For his part, the sub was still looking at me.
I turned back around in my seat, feeling the sub's eyes on me, and I opened a book and hid myself behind it. I couldn't wait for English class to be over.
Eventually, the bell rang, and the sub got up and closed the door. I sneaked a look around. Charisse and Branden had made it in on time.
The sub walked up to the board at the front of the room and wrote 'MR. HIGHTOWER,' while his big red ring winked at the class. Then he turned to face the room. He smiled, revealing his gleaming teeth.
"Folks, as you can see, I'm Mr. Hightower. I'll be subbing for Mr. Del Gatto for the next few days. He's going to be out for a little while."
I felt my spirits sink. Mr. Del Gatto must be really sick, and we would be stuck with the shiny Mr. Hightower.
"Now, unfortunately, I'm going to have to ask you to call me Mr. Hightower. School rules. But if you guys were in college, you could call me 'Tim.' And honestly, you guys look a lot more like college students than high school kids to me."
An appreciative murmur rippled through the class.
Mr. Hightower continued. "Since you guys are so sophisticated, I'm going to skip taking roll – they don't always take it in college. And just so you know, I'm likely to skip it tomorrow, too." He winked at the class. "I understand from Mr. Del Gatto's notes that you're finishing up watching a play for the first part of class today. I have to say, you're making it really easy on the new guy."
The class laughed.
Mr. Hightower wheeled the TV and DVD player to the front of the room in one swift, fluid movement. Then he flicked on the play and glided to the back of the room to turn out the lights.
I braced myself for what I might see in the screen.
I could feel my heart pounding as the action resumed, and the actors recited their lines.
I waited, on edge, and watched. But no shadow appeared, and there were no faces that did not belong.
As time passed, I began to relax. Before I knew it, the play was over, and Mr. Hightower had turned the lights on again.
I blinked in the sudden brightness and took a deep breath. I hadn't seen a single thing in the TV screen that shouldn't have been there. I was unbelievably relieved. I had even been able to enjoy the end of the play.
Mr. Hightower addressed the class. "Folks, we still have some time remaining together, but I have no specific instructions for the rest of this class. So, I propose that we make the rest of the period a free period. But you guys have to promise to keep the noise level down to a dull roar."
A ripple of laughter ran through the class.
I got out my Social Studies book and began to read. I had a feeling we wouldn't be doing much work in English class for the next few days.
At long last the bell rang, and I jumped up and swept my stuff into my backpack.
Mr. Hightower's voice rose above the clamor of the class as everyone packed up. "Katie Wickliff, can I see you for a moment?"
I froze. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to the unctuous Mr. Hightower. I pulled on my backpack, fixed a polite smile on my face, and approached his desk.
"You wanted to see me, Mr. Hightower?"
Mr. Hightower gave me another of his blinding smiles. "Don't worry, Katie. It's something good. Mr. Del Gatto told me that you're one of his favorite students."
Inwardly, I doubted it. If Mr. Del Gatto were sick enough that he was going to be out for several days, I wouldn't think his students would be on his mind much.
Mr. Hightower went on. "You're one of his favorite students because you're one of the best." He leaned forward in his seat and rested his elbows on the desk, lowering his voice confidentially. "In fact, he said you're one of his best ever. Since we'll have a few days without Mr. Del Gatto, how would you like to do some extra credit?"
I eyed the man in front of me carefully. His voice was friendly, flattering, but there was something watchful about him. I folded my arms in front of me. "What kind of extra credit?"
Mr. Hightower turned his red-stone ring on his finger in a complete revolution. I watched as the red stone disappeared from view and then made its reappearance.
"You live with your grandmother, right?" Mr. Hightower asked.
I nodded, but the question made me feel uneasy. How did he know that?
I nodded again. I really didn't want to answer the questions. Nodding was easier than speaking.
"Well, everyone knows your lovely grandmother is from Russia. Since your class is doing a unit on local writers and stories, why don't you ask her if there are any old stories from her hometown that she remembers. You could write an essay on that. Does that sound like fun?"
Mr. Hightower was staring at me without blinking.
I was growing more uncomfortable by the second. "I don't think so, Mr. Hightower."
Mr. Hightower nodded and smiled – this time concealing his dazzling teeth. "A great student like you must have a pretty packed schedule. Let me know if you change your mind. The offer's open all week."
I nodded again, and Mr. Hightower unleashed his brilliant grin. "I always like to encourage the brightest students, kiddo."
I turned to go. Charisse was waiting for me by my desk. Irina was standing just behind her, glaring at me.
As I walked toward Charisse, Irina sailed past me, flinging her scarf over her shoulder.
"Oh, Mr. Hightower," Irina said. "I have a question for you."
"Shoot, kiddo," he replied amiably.
"What did Mr. Hightower want?" Charisse asked.
"Let's just get out of here," I said, walking toward the door. Charisse followed.
Feeling someone's eyes on me, I glanced over my shoulder.
Mr. Hightower was watching me as he listened to Irina.
I walked faster.
As we moved out into the hall, Charisse touched my arm. "Katie, you seem freaked out. What happened with Mr. Hightower?"
Now that we were out with the chattering mass of students, I began to feel a bit silly. "Nothing really. Mr. Hightower offered me some extra credit. He just seems a little creepy to me."
Charisse giggled. "He is a little over-gelled, isn't he?" She gave me a playful tap on the arm. "Why did he offer you extra credit? Why not me? I'm the one who could use it."
"I don't know. It was weird," I replied. Suddenly I realized what was bothering me, and I drew in my breath sharply. "How did Mr. Hightower know my name? I've never seen him in my life. How did he even know who I was?"
Charisse blinked in surprise. "What do you mean, 'how did he know'? He's a teacher. You're a student in his class. Of course he knows who you are."
My uneasiness was growing. "But Mr. Hightower never called roll. He said we were too cool for it or something – so he doesn't know who any of us are. He also said Mr. Del Gatto told him what a great student I am."
"That must be how he knew you, then."
I shook my head. "Can you imagine Mr. Del Gatto bragging about any of us?"
"Hmmmmm. Now that you mention it, not really, no."
I went on in a rush. "And Mr. Hightower knew I lived with my grandmother."
"A lot of people know that," Charisse said. "Maybe he knows her. Maybe she told him about you."
"I-I. Maybe. I don't know."
Charisse gave me a concerned look. "What is it that worries you about Mr. Hightower?"
I sighed. Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe I was just tired from seeing strange men all over the place. "I'm not sure. It's probably nothing. Things have just been weird lately. Sorry I've been rambling on about this. How are you? When are you going to tell me what your big secret is?"
Charisse gave me a conspirator's smile. "I'll tell you tomorrow. I promise. Branden will be ready for everyone to know by then."
I glanced behind us. "Speaking of Branden, where is he? I haven't seen either one of you without the other in ages."
Charisse grinned, showing her dimples. "Branden had to see a guy about a thing."
I nodded. "Very enlightening. I must say, so far you've been good at keeping your secret. But then, you've always been good at keeping secrets."
Charisse seemed pleased. "Thank you."
I gave her a serious look. "That may not always be a good thing."
"Katie, there is no way you are tricking me into giving away my secret early. It'll be worth the wait."
"That's not what I'm getting at," I said. "I’m worried about you. You haven't breathed a word about your parents' divorce since you first mentioned it. And it must have been brewing for some time, and you never brought it up until it finally bubbled over."
Charisse laughed. "Is that all? You really had me going there. My parents have always argued. You know that."
"But Charisse, things must have escalated to lead to the break-up of a nearly twenty-year marriage."
"Honestly, I've been expecting this my whole life. And I’m okay with the divorce. I did think it was weird that I reacted so well at first, but I realized that's just the way I am. I accept things and move on."
As I looked at her, Charisse's eyes softened into sympathy. "I can understand how hard family things must be for you. You barely had any time to spend with your parents before they were gone. Divorce probably reminds you of that loss. It's not so bad for me. Besides, I've got it covered."
Something in Charisse's tone caught my attention. "What do you mean, you've got it covered?"
Charisse smiled brightly and stopped at the hallway that led to her next class. "I've got to run or I'll be late. Everything will be fine. I have got it covered."
She walked off and I stood staring after her. Something wasn't right about the way Charisse was acting. She glanced back at me and must have seen the expression on my face.
"Katie!" she shouted. "I know what I'm doing!"
I watched her disappear into the crowd.I wasn't so sure that she did.