In the meantime, here are the first four chapters from Book 1, Pure:
I leaned my forehead against the dark window, welcoming the feel of the cool glass against my feverish skin.
I could feel the night calling to me, though I didn't exactly know what I meant by that. It had been happening more often lately—it was a strange tugging on my mind.
Something was pulling me out into the dark.
In an unguarded moment, GM, my grandmother, had told me that my mother had had visions. The way the night called to me, I wondered if this feeling was the beginning of a vision. I wished I could talk to my mother. I'd been wishing for that more and more often lately.
I turned away from the window and picked up the picture that sat next to my bed. In the picture, a man with curly brown hair and a pale, blond woman smiled as they kneeled on either side of a laughing, fair-haired girl of five. The inscription on the back was hidden by the frame, but I knew well what it said. In GM's busy scrawl were the words Daniel, Katie, Nadya.
My father, me, my mother.
Though the memories were faint, I did remember those early days in Russia. I remembered the big apple tree and the roses that grew at our house. I remembered playing with my red-haired cousin, Odette.
I remembered, too, the day GM had taken the picture. Little had she known then that her son-in-law and her daughter would be dead soon afterward.
My father had died first in an accident in the mountains. My mother died just a few weeks later of a fever. GM had moved us to the United States shortly after that. We'd been here for eleven years now, and my old life was beyond my reach for good.
I set the picture down.
The darkness continued to call to me, and I tried to force my mind back to reality—back to what was normal and safe and unrelated to the unknown out in the dark.
I thought of school—and my friends—but even as I did so, I felt a sudden, sharp tug on my mind, and I was seized by an irrational desire to run out into the night—and to keep running until I found the source of the summons.
I closed my eyes and willed the feeling away.
After a moment, the night calling began to subside. I concentrated harder, pushing it further away from me. In another few minutes, the feeling was gone entirely. Relief flooded through me.
I was free.
I climbed into bed and turned out the light.
I was just drifting off to sleep when I was jolted wide-awake by the sound of a car tearing down our street. The car screeched to a halt somewhere below my window, and then turned sharply into our driveway.
I sat up. I heard the muffled slam of two car doors outside, and I heard GM, who usually kept late hours, hurrying toward the door.
I got out of bed and fumbled in the dark to find a robe. I was puzzled—who could possibly have come to see us in the middle of the night?
As I hurried out of my room, I heard a heavy pounding on the front door, followed by a woman's cry.
"GM! GM Rost! Annushka! Open the door!"
I froze. Only GM's oldest friends called her Annushka—and there were precious few of those.
I heard GM quickly unbolt the door and open it.
"Galina!" GM shouted in shock. Her voice rose even higher. "Aleksandr? Is that you, Aleksandr? How tall you are! I scarcely would have recognized you."
I wished I could see who was at the door, but I knew that if I went downstairs, GM would just order me back to my room. GM clearly recognized her visitors, and they were clearly people she had known back in Russia.
And GM never allowed me to get involved in anything that had to do with the past.
I crept to the top of the stairs but remained in the shadows—the better to hear without being seen.
"Annushka!" Galina cried. She had a heavy Russian accent—much heavier than GM's. "Annushka! I had scarcely allowed myself to believe that we'd actually found you! Oh, Annushka! After all these years!"
"Hush, Galina, hush," GM hissed. "You'll wake my granddaughter. Come in. Quickly, now."
I could hear the clack of a woman's footsteps in the hall, followed by a man's heavier tread. The door was closed and the bolt reset.
GM led her visitors down the hall to the kitchen.
I tiptoed down the stairs and sat on the bottom step. I wouldn't be able to see into the kitchen from my perch without leaning over the banister, but I knew from experience that I would be able to hear.
GM's voice floated down the hall to me. "Since you're here, Galina," she said, "you and Aleksandr may as well have a seat."
I heard chairs scraping on the kitchen floor.
"You're not entirely happy to see us, are you, Annushka?" Galina asked.
"I am happy to see you," GM said stiffly. "I am not happy about what it is that you bring with you."
"And what is that?" Galina asked sharply.
"Superstition," GM said wearily. "I have a feeling that this conversation is going to be difficult. However, we may as well try to be civilized. May I offer you both a cup of tea?"
"Yes, thank you, Annushka," Galina said.
I heard water running as a kettle was filled.
A moment later, I heard GM sit down at the table again. "I suppose you have a good reason for storming my house in the middle of the night?"
"Annushka, we need your help," Galina said urgently.
"Then why didn't you just call?" GM asked angrily. "Why fly all the way here from Russia? You did come from Russia, didn't you?"
"Yes, we did."
GM snorted. "Ridiculous. Again, I say, why didn't you just call?"
I figured that everyone in the kitchen was too absorbed in the conversation to notice me, so I risked a look over the banister. GM was sitting with her back to me, and I could see that she had pulled her long silver hair into a ponytail that flowed like silk down her back. She was resting her elbows on the kitchen table as she regarded her visitors.
Facing GM was a woman who was young enough to be her daughter. She was blond, and she wore a nondescript beige coat with brightly colored mittens. Next to her was a young man who seemed to be in his early twenties. He was wearing an olive-green military-style coat, and his hair was an odd shade of brown—sort of a cinnamon color. There was a strong family resemblance between the two of them. I guessed that Galina and Aleksandr were mother and son.
Aleksandr must have felt my eyes on him, for he transferred his gaze from GM to me.
I felt a flash of panic as Aleksandr's eyes met mine, and for just an instant, a feeling of strangeness—something wildly foreign—washed over me. I quickly pulled my head back behind the banister.
I froze, waiting to hear if Aleksandr would tell GM that he had seen me.
But Aleksandr did not say a word, and silence settled on the kitchen. I figured my reaction to his gaze had simply been nerves. I relaxed.
"Why didn't I just call you?" Galina said at last, breaking the silence. "I feared you would not listen. I feared you would hang up on me. Was I wrong about that?"
GM did not reply.
"I tried to keep in contact with you," Galina said mournfully. "You didn't answer any of my letters or phone calls."
"I didn't answer you," GM said, "because you wanted to involve my granddaughter in your nonsense. You wanted to make her believe that nightmares are real."
"I wanted to teach her," Galina replied angrily.
"So that's what this is all about then?" GM asked, equally angry. "You, in your great wisdom, have decided that the time has come for you to drag my granddaughter into your world of darkness and ignorance?"
"I did not choose the time, Annushka," Galina said. "It was chosen for me. I feared something like this would happen, and if I'd been working with Ekaterina all the time, maybe we could have prevented this."
I was startled to hear Galina call me by my Russian name—no one ever did that—it was almost as if the name weren't even mine. To my family I had always been Katie—my English father had been responsible for that.
"I don't want to hear your nonsense, Galina," GM said curtly.
"Annushka, you have to listen!" Galina cried. "He's free! You know whom I mean—"
"You will not speak that name in my house!" GM shouted.
Just then the kettle began to whistle, and I jumped.
I heard GM get up, and the whistling soon stopped. There were other noises as GM clattered around, getting the tea ready.
No one spoke.
"I am sorry," Galina said softly, after some time had passed.
I heard GM's chair scrape as she sat down again.
"I will not discuss this if it upsets you," Galina added.
"You don't believe in the supernatural, do you, Mrs. Rost?" Aleksandr asked.
GM snorted. "The mischievous spirits and the vampires? No, I do not. Those are just stories designed to scare people—tales about the supernatural are nothing more than a way to spread fear."
"They aren't all mischievous spirits," Aleksandr said lightly. "They say the Leshi, for example, is actually quite a good fellow. Though you make an excellent point about fear—there are darker things than vampires in Krov."
"You are too young to believe in such foolishness," GM said. "Why can't any of you from the old village have a normal conversation? Look at me. I started over here. I lead a normal life now. Can't you do the same?"
"I heard you are a graphic designer now," Galina said.
"Yes, I am," GM replied.
"I don't even know what that is," Galina said—there was a note of wistfulness in her voice.
"There's so much that you miss," GM replied in a rush. "How are you doing, Galina? How are you really? Are you happy? You know that in my heart I miss you. And don't you want good things for your son? How about you, Aleksandr? How are you?"
"Still unmarried. Ask my mother," Aleksandr said in amusement.
"Shut your mouth, Aleksandr," Galina snapped, her tone unexpectedly sharp. "Don't be a fool."
"Galina, why don't the two of you move somewhere else?" GM asked.
"We can't leave—"
GM broke in hurriedly. "I don't mean leave Russia. I mean leave the village—leave tiny little Krov. Move to Moscow. Or another big city. Russia is such a beautiful country. You don't have to stay in that dark, tiny corner of it. Move some place where there is life—where there are new things."
"Though you will not admit it," Galina said, "you know why I can't leave."
Silence settled on the kitchen once again.
"Annushka, there are lights on at the Mstislav mansion," Galina said after a time, her voice low and edged with fear. "The house has been deserted for a long time. You know when that house was last occupied—it was eleven years ago."
"Perhaps his son has decided to take over the place," GM said evenly. "It would be nice for someone to sweep out the cobwebs. It was a grand old mansion, and it should be restored to its former beauty. The house itself certainly never did anything wrong."
"They opened the old airfield two weeks ago and began fitting up a plane," Galina said quickly. "That's what made us decide to come here."
GM was unimpressed. "So? It would be nice for everyone in the area to have a proper airfield. It might encourage good things."
"Annushka," Galina said urgently, "his house is lit up again. And it was his plane they were working on. You know the one I mean—he bought it when he first amassed his fortune."
"I saw his plane myself," Aleksandr interjected. "I believe he reached the U.S. ahead of us. It took us time to get our travel documents in order."
"Quiet, Aleksandr!" Galina snapped. "Annushka, please. It's him. He is free. And he will seek out—"
"Galina, I warned you not to bring this up." GM's voice was sharp.
"Annushka!" Galina cried despairingly.
"He's dead, Galina," GM said sternly. "Enough!"
"He's returned!" Galina cried.
"Nonsense!" GM replied angrily.
"Annushka! How can you say that? He killed your daughter!"
A chair scraped back violently.
"Superstition killed my daughter!" GM shouted.
"Annushka! You must listen!" Galina wailed.
"Get out of my house!" GM cried.
I heard porcelain shattering against a wall, and two more chairs scraped back.
I jumped to my feet.
I watched in shock as Galina and Aleksandr ran down the hall to the front door. GM came running after them.
Galina fumbled with the locks, and then she and Aleksandr escaped out into the night. GM ran after them.
I quickly followed.
The cold night air cut through my thin nightclothes as I hurried down the concrete driveway in front of the house.
GM was standing in the middle of the driveway, breathing hard. Strands of silver had worked their way free of her ponytail and settled in scattered array around her head, glinting softly in the moonlight.
Galina and Aleksandr jumped into a car that sat just behind GM's own. The engine roared to life, and the car took off, tires screeching.
I watched the car's red taillights disappear into the night, and then I glanced over at GM—I had never seen her so angry.
"GM, what's going on?" I asked.
GM whirled around. She stared hard at me for a moment and then looked down at the silver cross she always wore. She wrapped her fingers around it and gripped it tightly.
"I'm sorry," GM said quietly. "I wanted to spare you all of that. I never should have let them in."
"Are you all right?" I asked. "Who were those people? Why did the woman—Galina?—why did she say a man killed my mother? I thought she died of a fever."
Anger blazed in GM's eyes. "Your mother did die of a fever. Galina doesn't know what she's talking about."
GM's expression softened as she continued to look at me. "Come back into the house, Katie. It's too cold out here."
GM put her arm around my shoulders and guided me back toward the gold rectangle of light that streamed out of the still-open door.
I stopped suddenly. I'd thought for just a moment that I had seen a tall figure standing in the shadows near the house. I blinked and looked again.
The figure was gone.
"Is something wrong?" GM asked, looking around as if she feared that Galina and Aleksandr had returned.
"No, it's nothing. I thought I saw something, but it's gone now."
GM steered me firmly into the house and shut and locked the door. Then she guided me into the kitchen. "How about a hot drink?"
I looked around the room. Three of the kitchen chairs were standing awkwardly askew. On the kitchen table were two of GM's blue-and-white china cups. One of the cups lay on its side, its contents spilled on the table—a brown puddle on the white surface. I could see shards of a third cup littering the floor, and a brown stain ran down the far wall.
"GM, did you throw a cup of tea at those people?" I asked.
GM simply made a derisive sound and waved her hand. Then she went over and kneeled down to examine the broken teacup. I knew that GM was very fond of that tea set, and she wasn't the type to lose her temper easily.
"GM, what made you so angry?" I asked.
GM ignored my question. "It occurs to me now that it was a bad idea to bring you in here. I'm sorry you had to see this."
She straightened up and calmly retied her ponytail. Then she put her hands on her hips and looked over at me.
"I think this will all keep till morning. Never mind about that drink now. We've had enough excitement tonight. It's up to bed for both of us."
"GM!" I cried as frustration welled up within me. "You're acting like nothing happened!"
GM gave me a puzzled, slightly wounded look, and I felt a wave of contrition wash over me—I wasn't used to shouting at her.
I went on more quietly. "Why won't you answer any of my questions?"
"I did answer one—about your mother," GM replied, averting her eyes.
I wasn't going to let her get away so easily. "No, you told me something I already knew—my mother died of a fever. You didn't tell me why anyone would believe she'd been murdered. That is what Galina was saying wasn't it? That a man from your old village had killed her? And why wouldn't you allow Galina to say his name?"
GM looked at me, and I could see a distant flicker of pain in her eyes. I could also see that she was fighting against it.
GM held out her hand. "If you will go upstairs with me, I will tell you a story. It will help to explain."
I hesitated. Too often, GM had distracted me when I had asked questions like these—she had diverted my attention from the past and sidestepped my questions without ever refusing to answer them outright. I feared she would talk around me again.
My questions would evaporate the way they always did.
"Please, Katie, come with me," GM said, her voice low and pleading. "You know the past is difficult for me."
I resigned myself and took GM's hand.
We went up to my room.
GM switched on the light. The lamp by my bed had a faded shade with yellow sunbursts on it. I'd kept it for years, refusing a new one when GM had wanted to redecorate. For some reason, the old shade reminded me of my mother.
GM smoothed back the quilt on my bed. "Let me tuck you in." She sounded sad and tired.
After I had settled under the covers, GM sat down beside me.
"I will tell you something I have never told you before, Katie. The night your mother died—"
GM's voice quavered and she stopped.
I watched as GM's face worked. She was struggling with something within. Eventually, she overcame it, and her expression settled into composed lines.
"The night your mother died was the worst of all—for the fever, I mean. It had raged through her body, and she had reached a point at which she could no longer find comfort of any kind. She couldn't eat or drink; she couldn't sleep. She couldn't even close her eyes for more than a few moments to rest—she said closing them made the burning behind them worse. On that last night, she kept calling for your father, and of course, your poor father was already gone—dead in that terrible accident. She was crying out for him to protect you. Even in her delirium, she knew she wouldn't last long."
GM paused again. Her chin had begun to tremble.
I felt tears stinging my eyes.
GM went on in a low voice. "When I could make her understand who I was—when I could make her understand that I was her mother—she begged me to protect you. She said, 'Swear to me that you will always protect Katie.' She need hardly have asked for that—the desire to protect you had been in my heart since the day you were born. But I swore it to her then, and I swear it to you now. On my life, I will always protect you."
GM stared at me steadily as she said the words, and the tears in my eyes began to sting even more fiercely. Soon they began to fall. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't hold them back.
GM put her arms around me and pressed my head to her heart.
"After I made my promise," GM said, her tone unsteady, "Nadya seemed to grow calmer. She asked to see you. I brought you in, and she kissed you on the forehead. You were sleeping and didn't wake. Then she sang her favorite piece of music—no words, just a hum. Do you remember it?"
I nodded weakly. When I was a young child, my mother had often sung the same melody to me. It was from a piece of music by Mussorgsky.
GM went on. "Not long after she finished singing, Nadya was gone. I swore to her that I would protect you, and I have. And I will. That's why I moved you out of the old village. That's why I moved you out of Russia altogether after your mother died. I had to get you as far away as I could from people like Galina. She is a good woman, but her thinking is trapped in the Dark Ages. She would warp your mind as she warped your mother's. She has nothing for you but superstition and shadows."
GM rose. She stood looking at me with tears streaming down her face. "I love you, Katie. Believe me when I say there is nothing out there. There is nothing in the dark."
She pressed a kiss to my forehead, as she said my mother had once done, and departed.
I was left feeling less comforted, rather than more so.
I was grateful to hear a story about my mother, even though it was painful. But as I had feared, GM had answered none of my questions and had actually left me with more.
Why had GM said there was nothing in the dark?
What was she was afraid of?
The next morning, I was awakened by the harsh, insistent beep of my alarm. I shut it off, and then sat up, brushing the hair away from my face. I sat still for a long moment, unable to think clearly—my dreams were still fogging my mind. Something had come to me in those dreams and was still clinging to me now—it was the same strange longing that called to me every night.
For the first time, I had felt the night calling in my sleep.
And there was something else that was different, too. There had been a presence—a shadowy figure in my dreams.
Someone had invaded my mind in my sleep—I was sure of it.
But even as the thought occurred to me, I shook my head as if to escape from it—I knew the idea was crazy. I forced myself to think of normal things. I had a quiz in English today. And I would see Simon—just being around him always helped to calm my nerves.
I got out of bed and found myself swaying dizzily. I was still tired after my too-eventful night, and my eyes were burning and puffy—probably because of the crying I'd done.
I walked to the bathroom and switched on the light.
I turned on the tap in the sink, and letting the water run, I splashed my face several times with cold water. I'd hoped the water would make me feel more awake, but instead it just made me shiver—and the water as it streamed down the drain sounded unnaturally loud.
I shut off the water, and another, more powerful shiver ran through me. The shudder was just passing off when I was hit suddenly by another wave of dizziness.
I feared for a moment that I was going to black out.
I placed my hands on either side of the sink and let my head fall forward. I took several deep, steadying breaths and willed myself to feel normal again.
After a moment, I felt better, and I raised my head. I gave myself a critical look in the mirror.
My face was a little paler than usual, but I didn't look nearly as bad as I felt. I pressed a hand to my forehead and then to my cheek. My skin was cool to the touch and not feverish. I was pretty sure I wasn't ill—that was reassuring at least.
My eyes were a little puffy, and I leaned closer to examine them. As I did so, I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye.
I turned quickly to look, but there was nothing behind me but a towel rack.
I figured the flicker was just a trick played on me by my tired eyes, and I turned back to the mirror.
As I peered into the mirror again, I saw another flicker of movement behind me. This time the flicker grew and coalesced into a dark shadow. I stared steadily at the shadow—it was definitely directly behind me.
I turned and looked over my shoulder.
Nothing was there.
I turned back to the mirror, and I was startled to see that the shadow was still hovering just behind me in the glass.
I turned to look behind me once more. As before, nothing was there.
I turned back to the mirror and leaned closer. The shadow behind me remained in the mirror, and as I watched, it began to grow in size. It grew longer and wider, and then thicker and more substantial. Suddenly, there was a man standing behind me. I could see him very clearly over my shoulder—black hair, blue eyes, a handsome face set in harsh lines.
The look in the man's eyes was dangerous.
Panicked, I spun around.
No one was there.
I hurried out of the bathroom into the hall.
My first instinct was to tell GM about what I had seen, but I quickly discarded the idea. Did I really think I had just seen a man standing in my bathroom? Did I really want to tell GM that I had been hallucinating and upset her over nothing?
I took a deep breath and went back in.
The bathroom was empty, of course, and I peered warily into the mirror. The man was no longer there, and the glass reflected only my own face and the towel rack behind me. I leaned closer to the mirror, keeping my eyes fixed on the area over my shoulder.
Several long moments passed, and nothing strange appeared in the mirror—no shadow, no harsh-looking man.
I straightened up in relief—I had just been imagining things.
I quickly showered and dressed.
As I ran downstairs to breakfast, I could smell cinnamon and sugar, and I wondered what was going on. GM didn't usually approve of sweets.
When I entered the kitchen I saw that all traces of the confrontation from the night before had been swept away, and GM was busy buttering slices of freshly baked bread.
I couldn't help smiling as I realized that GM had made cinnamon raisin bread for me—it was my favorite, but I didn't actually get to have it very often.
GM looked up at me, and I could see anxiety flicker in her eyes. She clearly felt bad about the scene last night and was trying to make up for it. I was doubly glad now that I hadn't told GM about my seeing things in the mirror—I didn't want her to feel any worse than she already did.
"Good morning, Solnyshko," GM said. Solnyshko was her pet name for me—a Russian endearment meaning 'little sun.' "Did you sleep well?"
I pushed all thoughts of my troubled night aside, and did my best to appear happy and unconcerned.
"Yes, thanks," I said. "How about you?"
"I always sleep well," she said, waving the knife she held. "It is hard to disturb a mind like mine."
I glanced at the cinnamon raisin bread. "Did you make this for me?"
"Can there be any doubt?" GM asked gruffly, pushing the plate of buttered bread toward me. "I know how much you like it."
I got out some milk, and we both sat down at the table. GM cut off two slices of bread for herself, and then she began poking raisins out of the bread with her knife. GM had a strong aversion to raisins—she only kept them in the house for me.
I was just reaching for my milk glass when an image of the man from the mirror suddenly flashed before me.
I pulled my hand back in alarm.
GM looked up at me. "Is something wrong?"
"Are you sure?" GM asked, frowning. "You looked frightened just now."
I took a deep breath and tried to appear calm.
"It's really nothing," I said. I couldn't tell her what I'd just seen—it would only upset her.
I finished up breakfast quickly and kissed GM on the cheek. "Thanks again."
I hurried to pull on my coat, and then I was out the door.
It was early October, just past my sixteenth birthday, and there was a definite chill in the air. As I walked down the driveway past GM's bright red sports car, the side mirror on the car caught my eye.
Against my better judgement, I paused and looked into the mirror.
For a moment, nothing happened. And then a shadow began to appear over my shoulder. Soon the shadow began to grow more substantial, spreading out and lengthening to reveal a man standing behind me—a man with dark hair, light eyes, and sharply defined features.
I cried out and spun around.
No one was standing behind me.
I looked back at the mirror.
The man was gone.
I hurried away from the car.
As I continued on my walk to school, I ordered myself not to panic. Act normal, I told myself. Just act normal.
I forced myself to think of the day ahead of me. I had the quiz in English today—which I hadn't studied for as much as I would have liked, thanks to the distracting night calling. And then there was the fact that I hadn't been able to sleep lately—that wasn't going to help my performance on the quiz, either. Of course, I knew that Simon would say that I wouldn't need sleeping or studying in order to do well.
I felt a sudden strange tug on my heart as I thought of Simon. Was there something wrong between the two of us? I had a feeling that there was—but what it was exactly, I couldn't pin down.
I hurried on to school, feeling my spirits sinking steadily.
As I neared the fence that surrounded Elspeth's Grove High School, I spotted a brown-skinned, black-haired girl sitting on a picnic table talking to a tall, pale boy with brown hair that fell over his eyes.
I smiled when I saw them, and the girl noticed me and waved. I was glad to see my friends Charisse and Branden. Somehow the sight of them made me feel as if everything were back to normal. Surely hallucinations couldn't exist in a place as normal as a schoolyard.
I hurried to join them.
"Hey, Charisse. Hey, Branden," I said.
"Happy Monday," Branden replied gloomily. "Welcome to the beginning of our prison sentence for the week."
"Ignore him, Katie," Charisse said. "How was your weekend?"
"Pretty good," I said, hoping Charisse wouldn't ask for details. "How was yours?"
"It was—a weekend," Charisse replied, smiling. "Are you ready for the quiz in English?"
I glanced at her sharply. Charisse's smile was bright, but there was something distracted about her tone—it was almost as if she wanted to avoid talking about the weekend as much as I did.
"Don't remind me about the quiz," I said. "I'm really not ready for it."
"Don't worry, over-achiever," Charisse said. "I'm sure you'll be fine."
Branden groaned suddenly. "The quiz. I forgot all about it." He sighed and slung his backpack over his shoulder. "I'd better get going."
Charisse looked up at him in surprise. "What? Why? Why are you leaving?"
Branden was rueful. "Katie may be able to get by on a quiz without studying, but I can't. I haven't even read the play yet. I'm going to get some reading done—someplace where there are fewer distractions. I can't study while you're around, gorgeous."
Charisse stood up to kiss him on the cheek. "Okay. I'll see you in first period."
Branden kissed her on the forehead, and then loped away across the yard toward the school.
"You guys didn't talk about the quiz this weekend?" I asked.
"No," Charisse said. Her voice grew dreamy. "We try not to deal with the real world too much when we're together. We were talking about other things."
"You know, sometimes you two are horrifyingly cute together," I said.
"Some people think you and Simon are pretty cute together, too," Charisse replied.
I felt a blush rise to my cheeks. "Simon and I are friends, Charisse. Close friends. But still friends. You know that."
"I know he likes you. And I think you like him, too. You just haven't admitted that to yourself, Katie."
I felt another strong tug on my heart and an even stronger desire to end this particular line of conversation.
I made no reply, and Charisse didn't pursue the topic any further.
She sat down again, and I stood beside her silently.
After a moment, I glanced at her face. The preoccupation I'd noticed before was still there.
"Charisse, is something wrong?"
Charisse looked down at her hands. "No. And that's the problem."
I looked at her, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"It's my parents," she said. "They've split up."
"What?" I said. My shock was as great as if Charisse had just thrown a glass of cold water in my face.
Charisse sighed—the sound was more wistful than anything else. "They're getting a divorce, Katie."
"Are you serious?"
"Of course I'm serious."
"Oh, Charisse," I said. "I'm so sorry."
I sat down next to her. "Are you okay?"
Charisse gave me an odd little smile. "I'm fine."
"What happened?" I asked.
Charisse sighed again and shrugged. "In a way, it was nothing out of the ordinary—my parents have always argued a lot. They're both stubborn—neither one of them ever backs down. But you know that already."
I nodded. I did know that her parents fought—but I'd had no idea that things had progressed to this point.
Charisse continued. "So, after yet another argument, my dad left last night. He went to stay at a hotel until he can find an apartment. My mom and I are going to stay at the house."
"I'm sorry, Charisse," I said again. "This must be killing you."
Charisse looked up at the sky. "That's the weird part—I'm okay with it. My parents have been fighting my whole life, and I think they may actually be better off apart. But people are supposed to be devastated when their parents break up, and I'm not. I don't even want to talk about it, really. But I did want you to be the first to know that it happened—you're my best friend."
I was surprised by Charisse's attitude, and I didn't know how to respond. I cast about for a few moments, trying to think of what to say.
"I suppose you have a right to your feelings," I said at last, "whatever they are."
Charisse gave me a wan smile. "There's no need to worry about me, Katie. I'm completely fine with everything."
I glanced around, once again at a loss for words, and I caught sight of a familiar blond head pushing determinedly toward us through a crowd.
It was Simon. His pale brows were drawn together, and his expression was stormy.
Charisse looked up at him as he approached. "Wow. Simon does not look happy. Did you guys have a fight or something?"
"Of course not," I said. "And you know we're just friends."
I stood up as Simon reached us. He glanced at Charisse and gave her a tight-lipped smile. "Hey."
He turned to me and pushed his hands into the pockets of his jeans, hunching his shoulders. "Can we talk? Alone?"
I glanced uncertainly at Charisse. "Will you be okay?"
Charisse smiled. "Of course. Like I said, I'm all right with it all. I'll see you in English class."
Simon waited with his head bowed while Charisse walked away.
When she was gone, he raised his face to mine—he looked miserable.
"Simon?" I prompted.
"It's my brother, James," he said abruptly. "He did something wrong last night. Really wrong. This time, he's going to jail."
I was startled. Simon's older brother had a habit of getting into trouble, but this sounded extreme—even for him. "Jail? You really think he's going to jail?"
Simon nodded grimly. A muscle in his temple worked as he clenched his jaw. "It's bad. It's about as bad as it can be. The cops came to the house last night looking for him. My parents ordered me to go to my room and stay there. I couldn't hear everything, but I heard enough."
Simon stopped and looked over his shoulder. Then he went on in a low voice.
"Somebody robbed a liquor store last night and shot the cashier. The police think it was James."
Cold fear washed over me. "He shot the cashier? Did he—"
I stopped suddenly. I didn't want to finish the question. I was afraid of what the answer might be.
Simon smiled bitterly. "Did he kill the cashier? No. The cashier is in the hospital in critical but stable condition. They think he'll be okay. Which doesn't change the fact that James shot somebody."
"You said the police think it was James," I said.
"But they don't know for sure?"
"No—he's gone missing. Nobody's been able to question him."
"Then we don't know it was James yet," I said. "Maybe the police are onto the wrong person."
Simon looked at me miserably. "Then why didn't he come home last night? The police don't know where he is. We don't know where he is. Katie, if he's innocent, where is he?"
"Don't assume the worst just yet." I tried to sound reassuring—it was all I could really do. "Maybe James just happened to be near the liquor store at the wrong time. Maybe he was afraid he'd be accused of being involved in the crime when he really wasn't. With a record like his, you can understand how he might get nervous and take off."
Simon nodded, and I could see the taut lines of his face begin to relax.
I went on in the same soothing tone. "James has been trying hard lately to pull his life together. You and I have both seen how he's changed. Please wait till you hear his side of things before you make up your mind."
Simon took in a deep breath and let it out heavily. His expression relaxed even more. "You're right. James has been doing better lately. Maybe it is just a misunderstanding."
"Simon!" A shrill voice suddenly sounded in my ear, startling me.
A girl was wedging herself in between Simon and me, forcing both of us to step back to give her room.
I soon found myself staring at a dark, glossy ponytail.
"Hi, Simon! How are you?" the girl chattered happily. "Are we still on for lunch today?"
I sighed inwardly as I realized that I recognized the voice.
"Irina?" I asked. "Is that you?"
The girl spun around. It was, as I had suspected, Irina Neverov. Her dark eyes narrowed maliciously. "Oh, Katie! I didn't see you there. Simon and I have a few things to discuss. Would you mind giving us some time alone?" Irina flashed a smile. "Thanks so much."
I wondered as I had before how things had gotten to this point. Irina and I had been good friends once long ago, but now that we were older, we had somehow become enemies.
And as far as I could see, the animosity was all on her side.
Simon broke in firmly. "I'll see you at lunch like I said, Irina. Katie, would you walk inside with me?"
"Sure," I said, glancing at Irina.
She was glaring at me.
Simon took my elbow and steered me across the yard and into the school. He didn't say anything, and I could see that the tension in his jaw had returned.
The two of us walked in silence until we reached my locker, and then I glanced up at Simon's face. His expression had gone impassive.
"Simon?" I said. "I assumed you still wanted to talk, but you haven't said a word."
"There's nothing going on between Irina and me," Simon blurted out. "The two of us were assigned to be partners for a science project—I didn't get to choose. We're going to meet today at lunch, and then we'll meet after school for most of the week. You have nothing to worry about—you're all that matters to me. You have to know that by now."
"Simon, you don't owe me an explanation," I said. "You have the right to be friends with anyone you want."
Simon's face grew pained. "But Irina and I aren't friends. That's what I'm trying to tell you. We're having lunch together because we're using the time to work on the project. That's all. I should have told you earlier, but I know you and Irina don't get along. I don't want you to think there's anything in it. You believe me, don't you?"
"Simon, of course I believe you."
Simon looked deeply relieved. "I'll make it up to you, I promise."
"Simon, you don't owe me anything," I said. "It's okay if you want to have lunch with other people sometimes."
"I insist on making it up to you," Simon said, smiling and backing into the crowd of students in the hall. "I'll see you later, Katie."
I watched Simon go. He'd been afraid I'd be jealous—but even after I'd heard he was going to have lunch with another girl, I'd felt no stab of envy.
I liked Simon. I really did. But for me it was definitely a friendship.
All the same, for some reason, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of regret.
By the time I made it to second-period English, I was still thinking about Simon. As I walked in, I was so lost in thought that I didn't realize at first that the room was buzzing about something. I reached my desk and was surprised to see Irina sitting on it, holding court with her friends, Bryony and Annamaria.
"We're meeting practically every day after school this week," Irina said in a loud, clear voice. "Simon says it's just for the project, but I actually think he has an ulterior motive. I think he's using the project as an excuse to get to know me better."
Bryony and Annamaria giggled.
Irina darted a furtive glance at me. "You know, when we're together, Simon can't take his eyes off me. I would say he's working up the courage to ask me out."
I glanced around, and I realized that Irina was attracting the attention of the entire class. People were whispering and staring, and I got the uncomfortable feeling that everyone was eager to see if an argument would break out.
Apparently everyone else thought that Simon and I were a couple too.
"Excuse me, Irina," I said. "You're sitting on my desk. I wouldn't mind sitting somewhere else, but you know how Mr. Del Gatto feels about his seating chart."
Irina blinked in surprise. That was clearly not the reaction she'd expected.
Several people in the class giggled.
Irina gave me a bright smile. "Oh, Katie. I didn't see you there. It's funny how you seem to be invisible today."
There were several more snickers, and Irina shot me a triumphant look.
I stood where I was, staring at Irina steadily.
At first, Irina returned my gaze defiantly, but as our staring contest stretched on, Irina's gaze faltered, and a flush crept up under her olive coloring.
She slid off my desk and walked away with the eyes of the class upon her. I sat down at my desk. With the spectacle over, the class lost interest in us and went back to talking about other things.
A few moments later, Mr. Del Gatto walked in. Just as he was turning to close the door, Branden and Charisse scurried into the room.
"Miss Graebel, Mr. McKenna," Mr. Del Gatto said, "so good of you to join us."
Branden and Charisse mumbled their apologies and went to their seats.
"All right, ladies and gentlemen, come to order, please," Mr. Del Gatto said.
The class quieted down, and Mr. Del Gatto strode toward his desk at the front of the room. He pulled out a stack of papers and set them on the desk with a slap.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to call roll, and then I'm going to pass out the quiz. Nothing on the quiz should be a surprise to you. The topic is Lydia Grace's play, The Maid and the Moon. We had a lecture about it on Friday, and of course, you should have read the material—though I have my doubts about whether or not you all have done so."
There was a collective groan from the room.
"There's no use in your complaining to me," Mr. Del Gatto said. "I gave you plenty of warning. Put away your books. You have a few moments to say your prayers while I take attendance."
While Mr. Del Gatto called out names, I took a quick mental inventory of what I knew about the play. We were doing a unit on local authors, and Lydia Grace was a local writer who had written a play dramatizing the life of the founder of our town, Elspeth Quick. Elspeth had been born in the early eighteenth century in a small community in New England. As a teenager, she had been falsely accused of witchcraft and had fled south to elude an angry mob bent on her destruction. Her true love, Christian Miller, followed her and eventually caught up with her. Following a thin thread of silver moonlight, Elspeth guided them through the forest to a fresh spring that ran through a grove of fruit trees. The two of them spent the summer in the grove and waited out their pursuers. Eventually, they settled in for good, and a town grew up around them.
Despite Elspeth's eventual prosperity, however, rumors of witchcraft continued to cling to her all of her life, and the grove where she and Christian had hidden was said to be haunted—
My reverie was broken when Mr. Del Gatto slapped a quiz facedown on my desk.
Before long, everyone had a copy of the quiz, and Mr. Del Gatto moved back to the front of the room.
"In compensation for your great suffering today, after the quiz we will watch a filmed version of the play. While watching the film, the quick amongst you will realize which questions you answered incorrectly. Those less fortunate will watch in blissful ignorance, noticing nothing."
Mr. Del Gatto glanced up at the clock above the door. "Turn your quizzes over. You have twenty-five minutes."
I flipped the sheet over and scanned the questions quickly. I was relieved to see that there were no questions I couldn't handle. I got to work.
Shortly before time was called, I set my pencil down and leaned back in my chair, glad to be finished.
No sooner had I done so than I was seized by a sudden strong desire to put my head down on the desk and go to sleep. My head began to grow foggy—and I began to feel as if I were sinking—as if something were pulling me down into unconsciousness.
"Time's up!" Mr. Del Gatto shouted.
I shook my head, trying to clear it.
Mr. Del Gatto walked around the room, collecting the quizzes.
"I expect to give my red pen quite a workout tonight."
Mr. Del Gatto moved back to the front of the room and deposited the quiz papers on his desk. Then he wheeled a TV and DVD player out of a corner to the front of the room. He switched on the movie.
"Mr. McKenna, would you do us the honor of switching off the lights?"
Branden extinguished the lights, and the room was plunged into semi-gloom.
I propped my chin on my hand and tried to ignore the unnatural feeling that was pulling at me. I forced myself to concentrate on the play.
As the minutes passed, I began to feel better. I watched the actors on the screen, and I felt myself being drawn into the drama.
Just as I was starting to relax, I spotted a dark shadow in one corner of the screen. As I watched, the shadow began to grow in size and move around the screen.
I wondered if something was wrong with the TV.
I turned and glanced around the room. All eyes were facing forward, and all the faces around me appeared to be untroubled. No one else seemed to have noticed that anything was wrong with the picture.
I turned back to the movie. The shadow continued to move around the screen, growing darker and more distinct. I watched it, feeling a chill run through me. Suddenly the shadow coalesced into a clear shape. It was a man—the same man I had seen looking over my shoulder in the mirror at home.
I bit my lip to stop myself from crying out and jumped to my feet.
I stumbled toward the door. "Mr. Del Gatto, I don't feel very well."
"Go to the bathroom, or to the nurse—wherever you need to go," Mr. Del Gatto said, concerned. "Just take the hall pass, so no one stops you."
I clutched at the little block of wood that served as the hall pass, and I hurried out of the room.
I ran until I reached the nearest girls' bathroom. Then I pushed the door open and stumbled inside, sinking to the floor in a corner, out of sight of the mirrors.
I closed my eyes, and the man's face rose again in my memory. There was no doubt in my mind that I had just seen him in the TV screen. I had now seen him in three different places.
I opened my eyes and ran my fingers through my hair. What was happening to me?
I leaned my head back against the wall. Whatever it was that was going on, I knew I couldn't tell anyone about it—everyone, GM included—would think I was crazy.
I would have to figure it out on my own.
Using the wall for support, I climbed to my feet. I eyed the row of mirrors and sinks in front of me warily.
I would have to look.
I took a few tentative steps toward the mirrors, and then I forced myself to move quickly. I rushed forward and gripped the edge of a sink for support.
I kept my head down.
After a moment, I raised my head and looked into the mirror. Only my own eyes stared back at me. I was alone in the smooth sheet of glass.
I breathed in and out slowly and released my grip on the sink. I looked down at my hands.
I was shaking.
I heard the door to the bathroom creak open, and I spun around.
Irina stalked into the bathroom, her eyes sweeping the room suspiciously.
"Katie, are you in here? Mr. Del Gatto sent me to find you. He says you're ill."
She sounded like she didn't entirely believe it.
Irina caught sight of me, and her eyes widened in surprise. "You're really pale, Katie. Are you all right?"
My head was swimming, but I gave her a reassuring smile. "Yes, I think so."
Irina took a step closer, scrutinizing my face. "Are you sure? You don't look so good."
I was surprised to see genuine concern in Irina's dark eyes. "I'm not ill," I said. "I just had kind of a spell."
Irina frowned. "What do you mean by a 'spell'?"
"I don't know exactly," I admitted. "But it's happened several times already."
"Maybe you should see a doctor."
I ran a hand across my forehead unsteadily. "I think you may be right."
"Are you well enough to go back to class?" Irina asked. "I can walk you to the nurse instead if you're not up to it."
"I can go back to class," I replied.
The two of us walked out of the bathroom together.
As we made our way back to class, I felt weak and unsure of my footing. Irina kept a watchful eye on me, as if she feared I would collapse.
When we reached the door to Mr. Del Gatto's class, I stopped and turned to Irina.
"Thanks for looking out for me," I said.
Irina's eyes narrowed warily, and she stiffened. She opened the door and swept into the classroom without a word.
I followed her rigid back into the room.
"How are you feeling, Katie?" Mr. Del Gatto asked.
"I'm okay now," I said—though I wasn't entirely sure that was true.
I did know that I wouldn't be able to watch any more of the movie. I didn't want to see that strange man's face again.
The room was dark, and I could hear the actors on the TV speaking their lines. I hurried to my seat and covered my eyes with my hands as surreptiously as I could.
I had no idea what I was going to do.
At the end of class, someone tapped me on the shoulder.
I looked up 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 in concern. "Why did you have your eyes covered? Are you all right?"
"I'm okay." I began gathering up my things quickly. "Let's just get out of here."
"I can take you home if you aren't feeling well," Charisse said. "You don't look so good right now."
"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 collapse.
I made an effort to smile. "I'm better, really."
"What happened in the middle of the movie?" Charisse asked. "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.
"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. "Branden and I had something to discuss—something very important."
"About the quiz?"
Charisse's smile deepened. "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. It's just that I told Branden I wouldn't tell anybody until we get everything ready."
"You know you're only making me want to know even more."
Charisse laughed. "The news will be worth the wait, trust me."
We'd come to a parting of the ways in hallway, and Charisse paused and looked at me closely. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine."
Charisse continued to stare at me.
"Really, Charisse," I said. "I'm fine."
"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. By the time I made my way into the cafeteria for lunch, I was still a little rattled, but I was feeling close to normal again.
My head was much clearer, and I could finally think straight.
I went through the line, and I spotted Charisse and Branden at a table nearby. I began to walk toward them.
Someone stepped into my path, and I looked up to see Simon.
He held up a small envelope. "This is for you."
I looked at the envelope, puzzled. "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 to you in English class?" Branden asked. "It looked like you were going to explode."
Charisse frowned and kicked him under the table.
"Hey," Branden said. "There's no need for violence."
"There is as long as you say silly things," Charisse replied.
Branden and Charisse continued to argue good-naturedly, so I opened Simon's envelope, knowing I wouldn't be observed.
I pulled out a card 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 and discovered that 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.
I made it through the rest of the day without any further disturbing visions, and I was in a relatively good frame of mind as I walked home.
When I reached the house GM was already there as usual—she ran her graphic design business out of our home. But I didn't say anything to her about my strange day at school—I knew she'd be horrified if I told her I'd been seeing things that weren't there. Instead, I hurried up to my room.
I figured I would try to do some research online.
I thought back to the two strange visitors we'd had the other night—the ones GM had chased off. I didn't really know who they were or what it was they'd wanted with us, but they'd both been from Krov, Russia, and they'd both talked about legends. And both my mother and I had been born in Krov, and apparently both of us had seen strange things.
Maybe I could find out something about the visions—and maybe there was a way to stop them from happening.
I searched online, but all I found was frustration. Not only was there nothing online about the legends or folklore of Krov, there was nothing online about Krov at all.
It was as if the town of Krov didn't exist.
I thought back to what the man—Aleksandr—had said in the kitchen. He'd mentioned spirits, vampires, and something called the Leshi. Searching on spirits and vampires brought up thousands and thousands of results—more than I could possibly sift through. I did read some of them, 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. Apparently when impersonating a human, the Leshi had unusually bright eyes and wore his shoes on backwards. As Aleksandr had said, the Leshi seemed to be a good fellow, but he 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 read through what felt like hundreds of entries without finding anything that sounded like what was happening to me.
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.
I began to wonder—could I have imagined the visions? Maybe I just needed to get some rest and things would get better.
I got started on my homework, and then later that evening I went down to dinner.
GM didn't seem to notice that anything was wrong with me, so I began to relax.
Maybe everything was going to go 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 very deeply relieved.
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 awoke with the alarm, and I felt a stab of nervousness as I approached the bathroom. But no shadows or strange men appeared in my mirror, and I was able to finish my morning routine without anything unusual happening.
I thought longingly that I could get used to that.
I was in a cautiously good mood as I made my way to school, and as I entered the schoolyard, I spotted Charisse and Branden at their usual picnic table. Charisse was sitting and Branden was standing, and they were leaning their foreheads together with their hands intertwined.
I decided not to bother them—they didn't look like they were in the mood for conversation.
I turned away from them, 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.
It was the man I had seen in the mirror.
In the flesh he was taller and younger than he had appeared in the mirror—he was actually only a year or two older than I was. 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 anyway.
Whoever he was, I was going to find out what was going on.
A familiar voice called my name, and I turned to see Simon walking toward me, grinning.
I turned back quickly and looked over the crowd.
The man from the mirror was gone.
"Who are you looking for?" Simon asked, coming up to stand beside me.
"Uh, no one," I said.
I glanced back at the spot where the man had been standing. He was still nowhere to be seen.
Could I have been hallucinating?
"So, James is okay," Simon said.
I turned back to him. He was still grinning and didn't seem to have noticed that anything was wrong.
I pushed my fears aside.
"I was really happy to get your text last night," I said, making an effort to appear normal. "James is really all right?"
"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 so glad 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."
"So James was out on the night of the liquor store robbery," I said.
"Yeah. James and Derek went out to the forest—to that old 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 the place—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 to her original hiding place in the Old Grove. They found two men in the grove already, and they were standing in front of a huge bonfire. 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 watched the two men for a few minutes, trying to figure out what to do about the fire. While they were watching, the guy in the furs suddenly took off and ran into the woods, and then the other guy took off after him. James and Derek chased them—you know, trying to get them to come back and put out the fire. But they couldn't catch the guys, so they went back to try to put out the fire themselves. And that's when the fire department showed up. Followed by the police."
"And the police showed up just in time to get the wrong impression," I said.
Simon smiled ruefully. "Exactly. A woman 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 hadn'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 shrugged. "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 anyone. On Monday, the woman who originally 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."
"In that case James wasn't anywhere near the liquor store robbery Sunday night," I said.
"Why did they think it was James, then?"
"The guy who shot the cashier was about the same height and weight as James 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 he was thrown out—which was some time ago—he'd gotten really angry and had made threats. The cashier just kind of guessed."
"That's quite a guess," I said. "But I don't understand—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 who were involved. And since the state police can vouch for James's whereabouts, the county police know for a fact that he's innocent."
"Wow—that really is a weird set of circumstances," I said. "You and your parents must be so relieved."
Simon ran a hand over his hair. "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 did it broke into the library, too, and stole all the yearbooks."
"Someone stole all of the yearbooks?" I said. "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. I only I heard about it 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, so nothing's really gone. The paper stuff's just backup for people who like things done the old-fashioned way."
I had to shake my head. "This is starting to get ridiculous. 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 group of police came looking for him this time?"
"It was county again. But Simon was with me Saturday night. I was free since you were busy."
I felt a momentary twinge of regret, and Simon continued.
"James and I 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."
"Then James has a solid alibi for the Saturday and Sunday night robberies here in Elspeth's Grove."
"Yeah, we're all pretty grateful for that. James has been doing so well lately that we don't want to see anything knock him off track."
Just then the first bell rang, warning us that it was time to head inside for homeroom.
I glanced back 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 should leave our two lovebirds over there alone. I have a feeling they'll make it in on time somehow."
Simon glanced at them, and then looked back at me. There was a strange expression on his face.
"They look happy," he said.
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 regret. 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.
My mind kept drifting back to Simon throughout homeroom and first period, and it wasn't until I was on my way to second-period English that I remembered I had a problem.
I paused before the classroom door.
We were scheduled to watch the second half of the Lydia Grace 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 man in the TV screen again—especially not after I'd hallucinated seeing him out in the schoolyard today. What if I saw him again—what would I do?
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.
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 that 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, and I figured that the two of them would come very close to being late again. I wondered if the sub was the forgiving type, or the kind who gave out detentions to let everybody know they wouldn't get around him.
I glanced over at him and found he was staring at me. I quickly looked away again.
I became very interested in the rest of the classroom.
Turning in my seat I saw Irina standing by the door, making a show of talking to 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 actually interested in the sub.
For his part, the sub was still looking at me.
I turned back around in my seat, feeling his 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 glanced around quickly. Charisse had made it in on time, but Branden hadn't. His seat was empty.
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 were going to be stuck with the shiny new sub.
"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 movement. Then he flicked them both on 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 movie 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.
Mr. Hightower returned to the front of the room and 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 began to file out.
"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 gleaming smiles. "You look worried, Katie—don't be. I wanted to tell you 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 didn'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 his best." He leaned forward 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.
"What kind of extra credit?" I asked.
Mr. Hightower turned the big 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 said.
I nodded, but the question made me feel uneasy.
"GM Rost?" he said.
I nodded again. I really didn't want to answer his questions—and 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 steadily.
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."
I turned to go, and I could see Charisse 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 as I reached her.
"Let's just get out of here," I said, moving 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 look really freaked out. What happened with Mr. Hightower?"
Now that we were out with the chattering mass of students, I began to feel a little silly. "Nothing really. Mr. Hightower just offered me some extra credit work. He just seems—a little creepy to me."
Charisse giggled. "He is a little over-gelled, isn't he?" She tapped me on the shoulder. "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 drew in my breath sharply. "Charisse, how did Mr. Hightower know my name? I've never seen him before 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?"
"Not really, no," Charisse said.
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."
"Maybe. I don't know. Somehow I can't picture the two of them being friends."
Charisse gave me a concerned look. "What is it that worries you about Mr. Hightower?"
I sighed. 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."
I took a deep breath and pushed my uneasiness away. "So, how are you doing? I didn't get a chance to talk to you this morning. And 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 and I will be ready for everyone to know by then."
I glanced around. "Speaking of Branden, where is he? I haven't seen either one of you without the other in ages."
Charisse grinned. "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 another 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 the whole thing errupted."
Charisse laughed. "Is that all? You really had me worried for a moment. My parents have always argued—you know that."
"But Charisse, things must have escalated to cause the break-up of a nearly twenty-year marriage."
"Honestly, Katie, 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 died. Divorce probably reminds you of that loss. It's not so bad for me, Katie. Besides, I've got it covered."
Something about her tone caught my attention. "What do you mean, you've got it covered?" I asked.
Charisse stopped at the hallway that led to her class and smiled.
"I've got to run or I'll be late. Everything will be fine—better than fine. You'll see."
She walked off, and I stood staring after her. Something wasn't right about the way Charisse was acting.
She glanced back at me.
"Katie!" she shouted. "I know what I'm doing!"
I watched her disappear into the crowd.
I wasn't so sure that she did.
As I got ready for school the next morning, I was feeling very strange. I hadn't been bothered by the night calling at all on the previous evening, and I had been able to sleep without trouble again. And once again, I had not seen anyone in the mirror who shouldn't have been there.
All the same, I felt like something was wrong.
GM was in a good mood at breakfast and talked enthusiastically about a new project she was working on. She'd been uncharacteristically subdued since we'd had our visitors on Sunday night, and I was happy to see her acting more like herself.
I left the house and walked to school, avoiding the mirror on GM's car on the way out, just in case. The air was crisp, but not too cold, and I couldn't help admiring the red and gold leaves that still clung to the trees. Out in the fresh air everything seemed bright and new.
Maybe today would be a good day.
At school, I spotted Charisse and Branden at their usual picnic table. This time they were both sitting on the table, holding hands and smiling at one another. Simon was standing nearby.
As I walked toward them, Simon broke into a grin. He looked so happy that I felt a now-familiar wave of regret wash over me.
I was happy to see Simon—but I wasn't quite as happy to see him as he was to see me.
"Hey, Katie," he said as I walked up to him.
"Hey," I said. I glanced over at Charisse and Branden, who were now whispering to each other. It was clear there would be no conversation from them this morning.
I supposed I would have to wait till later to find out what Charisse's big secret was.
I turned back to Simon. "So, how was everything at home last night? The police didn't come by looking for James again, did they?"
"Luckily, no. It was pretty quiet."
He paused and gave me a serious look. "And how are you? Lately, you've seemed different—kind of faraway. But today you seem a bit more like yourself."
I looked down at my feet. I hadn't realized that Simon had noticed my strange moods—and I certainly couldn't explain what was wrong.
I could hardly tell him that I'd been seeing people who weren't there and feeling the night calling to me.
I had to wonder then—was that all it was that was creating the distance between Simon and me? Was it just my temporary insanity?
Maybe I actually liked him better than I realized.
I looked at Simon closely. "I didn't mean to be distant," I said. "I've just been feeling strange lately. But I'm better now."
Simon's brow creased with concern. "Were you sick?"
"No," I said. "I just a funny feeling I couldn't shake off."
"You're sure you weren't sick?" Simon said.
Simon sounded so concerned that I couldn't help smiling a little. "I'm sure."
"You weren't worried about Irina and me and the fact that I've been meeting up with her for our project, were you?"
Simon smiled then, too. "I'm glad you're better."
He glanced over at Charisse and Branden. "It's kind of cold out here, and I doubt those two will miss us if we leave. Do you want to go inside? I think the Future Business Owner's Association is running a coffee and tea cart. Maybe we could get something to drink."
"Sounds good," I said.
Simon and I walked toward the school, and I glanced over at him. It felt good to be walking beside him without any awkwardness between us, and I should have felt like things were back to normal. But my uneasiness from earlier in the morning suddenly returned to me all in a rush.
Why did I feel like something was terribly wrong?
Simon and I went into the school and soon located the coffee and tea cart. As we waited in line, I started to feel too warm, and I took off my coat and draped it over my arm. We were almost at the head of the line when the guy ahead of us turned to leave and tripped, sending coffee flying all over.
I looked down and watched as several dark brown spots bloomed on my cream-colored sweater and began to spread out.
"Are you okay?" Simon asked. "You're not burned, are you?"
"No, I'm fine," I said. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, it's all on my coat. No harm done."
I glanced down ruefully. "I'd better go rinse these stains out before they set in. I'll see you at lunch."
I hurried to the nearest girls' bathroom. The room appeared to be empty, and I briefly considered taking off my sweater so I'd have an easier time getting at the stains.
I double-checked all the stalls—I was, in fact, alone in the bathroom.
But it occurred to me that someone could come in at any moment, so I decided to keep my sweater on and just do the best I could.
I tore off several paper towels from the dispenser on the wall and went to a sink. I turned on the tap and began to blot at the stains on my sleeve. To my relief, the stains began to fade.
I was just starting to work on the stain on my collar when I heard a click from the door. The door was hidden by a tiled wall, so I couldn't see who had come in.
I was definitely glad I hadn't taken off my sweater now.
I looked up, but no one came around the wall, and I figured I must have imagined the sound. I realized that the bathroom door didn't click anyway—it creaked—so it probably wasn't the door. I turned back to the stain on my collar.
It suddenly flashed into my mind that there was a lock on the bathroom door—a crescent-shaped tab at the top of the door. It occurred to me that the lock would probably make a sound like the click I'd heard. But I shrugged the thought off—who would want to lock the door to the girls' bathroom?
I leaned toward the mirror and continued to dab at my collar. As I did so, I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked up into the mirror and saw the dark-haired, blue-eyed man from my earlier hallucinations standing behind me once again.
I turned around.
This time, he didn't disappear.
I felt a flash of panic. The strange man I kept seeing in mirrors was actually standing in front of me now. He was staring at me steadily—and I could see anger—even hatred—burning in his eyes.
And yet, he was strangely beautiful. There was something perfect about the shape of his face and the long, lean lines of his body.
Behind me, the water kept running in the sink. For a long moment there was no other sound in the room.
"Who are you?" the man asked at last. His voice was harsh, and he had an accent I couldn't quite place.
"Are you real?" I asked.
The man moved closer in one swift movement. His face was only inches from mine.
I began to feel light-headed. Was I hallucinating all of this?
"Who are you?" he demanded.
I could feel the warmth from his body, and I reached out a hand to touch his shoulder.
"You feel solid enough," I said. He did indeed feel solid, and I found I was reluctant to move my hand.
So I wasn't hallucinating—somehow an image in a mirror had become real.
"How did you get out?" I asked.
Puzzlement flickered in his eyes. "How did I get out of what?"
"Out of the mirror," I said. "That's where I first saw you."
The man's anger returned. "How do you know that woman Galina Golovnin?"
"Galina Golovnin?" I said. "Is that the woman who came to my house on Sunday? Is that her full name?"
There was more confusion in the man's eyes, but he pressed on, leaning even closer.
"What do you know of Gleb Mstislav?"
I caught at the name. "Mstislav. Galina mentioned a Mstislav mansion. She said the lights were on—she seemed to think there was some kind of danger. Does Gleb Mstislav have something to do with that?"
The man's eyes ranged over my face. "You really don't know, do you?"
"Know what?" I said.
The man stared at me for a moment. Then he backed up a few steps and turned to go.
"Wait!" I said. "Are you a student here? How will I find you again?"
The man stopped and looked at me.
"I’m sorry if I scared you," he said. "You should forget you saw me."
He turned away again.
"Wait!" I said, feeling panic rising in me. "If you know something about Galina and this Gleb Mstislav, then I need to talk to you."
"No," he said sharply.
"I need to talk to you," I repeated.
"It's better if you don't."
"But what if I genuinely have to?" I said in a rush. "What if the danger that Galina hinted at actually happens? What if I need to talk to you then?"
Something flickered in the man's eyes that I couldn't quite read.
"What is your name?" he asked.
"Katie Wickliff," I replied.
"Finally you answer a question," the man said, a small smile quirking at one corner of his mouth. "If you need to talk to me say 'Katie Wickliff summons you.' If you do that, I will find you."
The man turned and disappeared around the wall, and I heard the lock on the door click again. I hurried after him, rushing around the tiled wall and running out into the hall. I looked both ways through the crowd of students.
The man from the mirror had vanished.
I glanced back at the door to the girls' bathroom. Something that wasn't quite right had been tugging at my mind, and as I looked at the door, I realized what it was. The lock was on the outside of the door—it was designed to keep people out, not lock them in. There was no way the strange man I'd just encountered could have locked the door once he was inside the room. And if he'd locked it from the outside, then he wouldn't have been able to get in.
So—how had the door come to be locked?
I went to homeroom in a bit of a daze.
By first period I had begun to have doubts. Had I really spoken to the man from the mirror, or were my hallucinations getting stronger? But then I remembered the feel of his shoulder under my fingers. He was definitely real.
So who was he? And how did he know about the visitors we'd had on Sunday night?
No matter what was going on, I knew that I couldn't tell anyone that I'd seen an imaginary man come to life.
I knew that no one would believe me.
As I walked into second-period English, I noticed that Bryony and Annamaria were standing listlessly by Irina's desk. I figured that Irina must be out. Without their leader, the two of them didn't seem to know what to do with themselves.
Mr. Hightower was still subbing, but after giving me an over-bright smile and greeting me warmly, he didn't notice me again. Instead, he skipped role, as he had hinted he might yesterday, and gave the class a free period. I had plenty of work to do for my other classes, so I kept busy until the end of the period. I was so deeply engrossed in my work that I was startled when the bell rang.
As everyone started filing out, Charisse came up to my desk, smiling. "Hi."
I looked up at her. "You're cheerful today."
"I have good reason to be."
I stood up and swept my books into my backpack. "Does your good mood have something to do with your big secret?"
I slipped my backpack on. "Does that mean you're going to tell me what it is now?"
Charisse moved toward the door. "Not yet."
I hurried after her. "Charisse!"
She looked at me over her shoulder. "What?"
I caught up to her, and the two of us filed out into the busy hallway.
"Charisse, you promised," I said.
She giggled. "I know. I will tell you, but just a little later. It's so crowded now. And it'll be crowded at lunch, too. I want to tell you when it's just you and me. Let's make an appointment to meet at the picnic table after school."
"Charisse, I can't believe you're dragging this out."
"Please, Katie. This is really important to me. And I have a question to ask you afterward, so you should prepare yourself."
"All right," I said. "I'll do the best I can to prepare myself without actually knowing what this is about."
"It's nearly the end—I promise," Charisse said. "So how are you doing? I haven't heard much about what's going on with you lately."
I looked away. I wanted to tell Charisse what was going on, but I knew I couldn't. I cast around for something to say.
Charisse seemed to notice my discomfort. "Do you still think Mr. Hightower is creepy?"
Charisse was wrong about what was troubling me, but I was thankful for the diversion.
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe 'creepy' is too a strong word. I'm just a little uncomfortable with how hard he tries to make people like him. And why doesn't he ever call roll? It's like he's encouraging people to cut. I doubt if he even noticed that Irina wasn't in English class today."
Charisse blinked in surprise. "Do you think Irina was cutting class? She's almost as much of a bookworm as you are."
"I don't think she cut," I said. "But what if something happened to her or to someone else? What if it was important to know whether or not a student was in class? I'm convinced he doesn't know the names of most of the people in there."
Charisse shrugged. "Maybe he just wants to make his time as a sub as easy as possible."
"Maybe," I replied. "I just don't think he's doing us any good."
"Don't despair," Charisse said. "Mr. Del Gatto will be back soon, and then you can bask in his sarcasm once again."
She stopped. "Well, this is my hallway. I'll see you at lunch."
As Charisse walked away, I found myself looking over the crowd for the man from the mirror. I both hoped—and feared—to see him again.
The strange man and the light-headed feeling he'd given me were still on my mind when I went to the cafeteria for lunch. I spotted Simon sitting at a table alone, and I made an effort to focus on the real world in front of me.
I couldn't let myself get lost in dreams—no matter how intoxicating those dreams might be.
After I went through the line, I sat down next to Simon and glanced around. "Where's our favorite couple? This is the first time I've beaten them to lunch in ages."
"They're being mysterious again."
"So, you noticed that about them, too?"
"Yeah," Simon said. "Branden said he had something to tell me today."
I looked at him sharply. "Charisse said the same thing to me. Do you have any idea what it is?"
"No." Simon looked down at his tray and stabbed at some lettuce. Then he looked up at me. "They aren't my favorite couple, you know."
I met his gaze. "No?"
"No," Simon replied firmly. "We are."
He went on in a rush. "Katie, I want to make it up to you for my spending so much time with Irina this week. Would you like to go see a movie this Saturday? I really miss spending time with you."
As Simon said the words, I felt a strange tug on my heart—as if something were pulling me away from him. I was suddenly irritated with all of the strange things that had been happening to me lately—especially with the weird feeling that kept pushing me away from Simon. I'd known him forever, and he was a good friend. Why shouldn't I spend time with him?
I smiled at him. "I'd like that."
Simon's answering smile made me feel good.
A moment later, a backpack hit the table with a resounding thud, causing our trays to jump.
"Now, who are the googly-eyed lovebirds?"
I looked up to see Branden grinning down at us. With one big hand, he pushed his backpack out of the way and slid his tray into place. Then he sat down heavily.
Charisse sat down next to him.
"So glad you could join us today," Simon said.
"We had business to attend to," Branden replied loftily.
"So, how have you been, Simon?" Charisse asked. "I feel like I haven't seen you much lately."
Simon feigned shock. "I can't believe you're actually talking to me. Don't you and McKenna want to spend the entire lunch period staring soulfully into one another's eyes?"
"Very funny," Charisse said.
"Actually, we have a lot to talk about today," Branden said.
Charisse kicked him under the table. "Don't tell them. I promised Katie I would tell her when it was just the two of us."
"What?" Branden protested. "I was just going to tell them the news about Mr. Del Gatto."
"What's that about Mr. Del Gatto?" I asked.
Branden leaned forward. "The story is that he's missing."
I was startled. "What do you mean 'missing'?"
"I mean nobody knows where he is," Branden replied. "Travis Ballenski told me—his dad is a cop. It turns out that Mr. Del Gatto's neighbor, Mrs. Hannity, called the police after there was a lot of crashing and screaming over at his house the other night. The police went out and found that the back door had been pulled off its hinges, and Mr. Del Gatto was nowhere in the house. The police have been looking for him since then, but they haven't found him yet."
A chill ran through me. "When did this happen?"
"Monday night," Branden said.
"Was it a home invasion or something like that?" Simon asked.
Branden shook his head. "No one knows exactly. But the cops don't think so. Nothing seems to have been taken—but Mr. Del Gatto lived alone, so there isn't anyone who can say for sure if anything is gone."
"What happened with the door?" Simon asked. "Do the police know how it got pulled off its hinges?"
"Nope," Branden replied. "They have no ideas. No evidence."
I felt a strange sense of dread settle over me. The conversation continued on around me, but I was lost in my own thoughts.
I was worried about Mr. Del Gatto—and then I remembered that the school had called in a sub. They had obviously known that Mr. Del Gatto would be out. I figured that Branden must have gotten a hold of a wild rumor—Mr. Del Gatto was probably okay.
All the same, I was still uneasy.
My uneasiness stayed with me for the rest of the day, but I managed to shake it off as my final class drew to a close.
I had my appointment with Charisse.
When the final bell rang, I hurried out to the picnic table. Charisse was sitting there, already waiting for me, and she jumped up to hug me.
"Oh, Katie! I'm so happy!"
I stepped back from the embrace and looked at her, surprised. "I'm happy to see you, too."
"I really never thought this could happen!" Charisse continued, holding onto my arms and spinning me around. "I hadn't really planned to do this, and yet it's so right!"
"Does this mean that you’re finally going to tell me what your big secret is?" I asked.
Charisse stopped spinning and stared at me incredulously. "Can't you guess? I thought it was obvious. I was sure you would figure it out long before I got the chance to tell you."
"Charisse!" I cried in frustration. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Just tell me."
"Katie, what have I always wanted to be?"
"An actress," I said.
"Yes!" Charisse cried. "I'm moving to New York. I'm going to follow my dreams and become an actress."
I was stunned. "What?"
Charisse laughed. "I know! Isn't it wonderful?"
"I don't understand," I said. "Is one of your parents moving to New York now that they're separated?"
"No," Charisse said. "It's just me. At least at first. Branden will follow me later."
"You mean you're running away from home?" I said.
"No, of course not. I'm just moving on to the next phase in my life."
"Charisse, are you crazy?"
Charisse's face fell. "You aren't happy for me?"
Charisse looked wounded. "I was going to ask you if you wanted to come with me. You probably couldn't come right away, but eventually you could move up, too, and you could share our apartment."
"You want me to move with you to New York?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Charisse, you're only sixteen. No one will rent you an apartment. And you don't have a job."
"I know," Charisse replied. "That's why Branden and I have been so busy lately. We had to arrange to get fake IDs and fake birth certificates—the birth certificates are just in case. Branden knows some people in New York who need a roommate right now. So, I'll go up first and move in as the new roommate—I won't have to be on the lease or anything. And I have enough money in the bank from my parents to cover my share of the rent for the first few months. And then I'll get a job as a waitress and start going out on auditions. Once I'm established, Branden will come up to join me. We don't have the IDs or the birth certificates yet, but we'll have them soon."
"Charisse, are you crazy?"
Charisse was beginning to grow angry. "You already said that."
"Charisse, you're buying forged documents? Where are you getting them from?"
"Everybody has a fake ID, Katie," Charisse snapped. "It's not a big deal. And I'm certainly not going to tell you who our contacts are. Not if you're going to take this kind of an attitude."
"So that's why you've been late to classes and to lunch," I said. I sat down on the bench by the picnic table.
Charisse stared at me. "You're acting like we're criminals."
"Charisse, you can't run away from home," I said. "Do you know what happens to runaways?"
"I'm not running away." Charisse shook her head, blinking back tears. "You're my best friend. You were supposed to be happy for me. This wasn't how this was supposed to go at all."
"Charisse, I'm sorry," I said. "But I can't think of this plan as anything but a mistake."
"People a lot younger than me are successful actresses," Charisse said frostily. "If anything I'm wasting my time hanging out around here."
I shook my head. "Oh, Charisse, this is not right."
Charisse bristled. "Why? You don't believe that Branden and I know what we're doing? I'm following my dreams, and Branden is going to support me in any way he can. No offense, Katie, but you don't know anything about having a successful relationship, and we know all about it. We can make this work."
"Successful relationships," I said slowly. "So that's what this is all about? You think you can make up for your parents' failed marriage by running away from it?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Charisse snapped. "You have no idea what you're talking about."
"I remember now," I said. "When I asked you about the divorce yesterday, you said you were taking care of it. Is this what you meant by taking care of it?"
"Katie!" Charisse cried. "This is unbelievable. How dare you try to psychoanalyze me?"
"Charisse, please just listen," I said. "You know I'm your best friend. What you're talking about doing will hurt your parents. It will hurt Branden's parents. You can't do this."
The tears that had threatened earlier now began to stream from Charisse's eyes. "I thought you were my best friend in the whole world. And I thought that you would always support me. But now I see how wrong I was. I can't believe you're ruining this for me."
Charisse turned and ran off.
I stood up and took a few steps after her, but I soon stopped. I realized that going after her would do no good.
Charisse was no mood to listen.
I sat back down on the bench.