Firelight, p.10
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       Firelight, p.10

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
 
Page 10

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  Except around Will.

  My fingers slow, still on my skin. Hope flutters inside my chest. Except around Will. Around him my draki lives. Will. Of course there’s risk in that, too. But these days, risk is like air to me. Everywhere. My life is a far cry from safe—no matter how hard Mom clings to the notion.

  9

  I follow the throng of girls heading to the gym, trying to keep a healthy distance from the press of bodies. It’s all so overwhelming. The foreign smells, the grating sounds, the lack of open space and fresh air. Dribbling balls beat the stale air, echoing off the wood floor, growing louder as we near the gym’s double doors.

  “Looks like we’re working out with the guys today,” Catherine says as we step through the doors into sour, sweat-saturated air.

  That feeling comes over me again, and immediately I know he’s here. I spot Will across the gym, watch as he shoots a three-pointer, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet. Even before the ball clears the net, he’s looking at me. Familiar heat creeps up my chest to warm my face.

  “Boys this side, girls this side!” A coach blows a whistle and gestures to separate sides of the court.

  “Ugh, the dreaded basketball unit,” Catherine mutters in her slow drawl. “I’d rather run the track. ”

  We file into line to shoot free throws. At half-court, the end of the boys’ line collides with the end of the girls’. It’s a little chaotic here, where the lines converge and the sexes mingle to abuse each other good-naturedly.

  From the corner of my eye, I spot Will getting out of line and dropping back to where Catherine and I stand at the end of our line.

  “Hi,” he greets me.

  “Hi. ”

  Catherine looks back and forth between us. “Hey,” she volunteers dryly.

  Will and I both look at her.

  “Yeah,” she says slowly, shaking the bangs from her eyes and moving in front of me, giving us her back.

  “So,” Will begins, “do you play ball as well as you run?”

  I laugh a little. I can’t help it. He’s sweet and disarming and my nerves are racing. “Not even close. ”

  The conversation goes no further as we move up in our lines. Catherine looks over her shoulder at me, her wide sea eyes assessing. Like she can’t quite figure me out. My smile fades and I look away. She can never figure me out. I can never let her. Never let anyone here.

  She faces me with her arms crossed. “You make friends fast. Since freshman year, I’ve spoken to like…” She pauses and looks upward as though mentally counting. “Three, no—four people. And you’re number four. ”

  I shrug. “He’s just a guy. ”

  Catherine squares up at the free-throw line, dribbles a few times, and shoots. The ball swishes cleanly through the net. She catches it and tosses it back to me.

  I try copying her moves, but my ball flies low, glides beneath the backboard. I head to the end of the line again.

  Will’s already waiting at half-court, letting others go before him. My face warms at his obvious stall.

  “You weren’t kidding,” he teases over the thunder of basketballs.

  “Did you make it?” I ask, wishing I had looked while he shot.

  “Yeah. ”

  “Of course,” I mock.

  He lets another kid go before him. I do the same. Catherine is several ahead of me now.

  His gaze scans me, sweeping over my face and hair with deep intensity, like he’s memorizing my features. “Yeah, well. I can’t run like you. ”

  I move up in line, but when I sneak a look behind me, he’s looking back, too.

  “Wow,” Catherine murmurs in her smoky low voice as she falls into line beside me. “I never knew it happened like that. ”

  I snap my gaze to her. “What?”

  “You know. Romeo and Juliet stuff. Love at first sight and all that. ”

  “It’s not like that,” I say quickly.

  “You could have fooled me. ” We’re up again. Catherine takes her shot. It swishes cleanly through the hoop.

  When I shoot, the ball bounces hard off the backboard and flies wildly through the air, knocking the coach in the head. I slap a hand over my mouth. The coach barely catches herself from falling. Several students laugh. She glares at me and readjusts her cap.

  With a small wave of apology, I head back to the end of the line.

  Will’s there, fighting laughter. “Nice,” he says. “Glad I’m downcourt of you. ”

  I cross my arms and resist smiling, resist letting myself feel good around him. But he makes it hard. I want to smile. I want to like him, to be around him, to know him. “Happy to amuse you. ”

  His smile slips then, and he’s looking at me with that strange intensity again. Only I understand. I know why. He must remember…must recognize me on some level even though he can’t understand it.

  “You want to go out?” he asks suddenly.

  I blink. “As in a date?”

  “Yes. That’s what a guy usually means when he asks that question. ”

  Whistles blow. The guys and girls head in opposite directions.

  “Half-court scrimmage,” Will mutters, looking unhappy as he watches the coaches toss out jerseys. “We’ll talk later in study hall. Okay?”

  I nod, my chest uncomfortably tight, breath hard to catch. Seventh period. A few hours to decide whether to date a hunter. The choice should be easy, obvious, but already my head aches. I doubt anything will ever be easy for me again.

  Catherine saves me a seat at lunch. I slide in across from her and her friend. Apparently one of the other three people she’s spoken to thus far in high school.

  She introduces us. Brendan is all gangly limbs and bobbing Adam’s apple. He hunkers over his packed lunch, nibbling on a peanut butter sandwich clutched between his two large hands as if someone might snatch it from him.

  “Hey,” he says quietly, almost inaudible. His darting brown eyes never looking too long at my face. At anything or anyone really, except Catherine.

  “Hi,” I return, then search for my sister, ignoring the faces staring back at me. Like I have tried to ignore them all day.

  I spot her across the crowded lunchroom. Holding her tray, she stands with another girl. She looks so confident. So self-assured. I’ve never seen her this way.

  I fidget in my chair. Push a frizzy, coarse lock back behind my ear. Watching her, I scratch a bit desperately at my arm, at my suffocating skin, and wince when it starts to sting. I glance down at the splotchy, irritated flesh. I’ve been this way all day. Uncomfortable, slightly ill. The butterflies in my stomach definitely not the good variety. Except during gym today. I’d felt good then…around Will.

  Tamra sees me, registers that I’m sitting with people, and looks relieved. Permission granted to sit wherever she wants. She nods to me as she joins a table crowded with beautiful, well-dressed teenagers. Clearly the cream of Chaparral High. Brooklyn is among them, of course.

  My dose of her in third period supported everything Catherine told me. Apparently she heard about Will sitting with me yesterday and took exception. Every time Mrs. Schulz turned to the blackboard, Brooklyn would swivel in her seat and level me with a killing glare. I wonder if she knows he talked to me during PE.

  I suppose a glare like that would send most girls whimpering into themselves. I didn’t care. I have bigger problems.

  I haven’t seen Will since PE. As I haven’t decided whether to go out with him, it’s a relief. Yes, being around him feeds my draki, and it’s all about that right now. About me doing whatever I can to keep that part of myself alive. But he’s everything I should avoid.

  For a draki, he’s death. Ironic, huh? To keep that part of me alive, I have to be close to that which kills it.

  I scan the lunchroom but don’t spot him. He must have another lunch period. Regret stabs my heart. And then
I’m angry for that. Confused. My fingers fumble with a packet of ketchup.

  At least I haven’t seen his cousins. There’s no confusion when it comes to them. They should be avoided at all costs. Xander with his sly eyes and Angus with his curling lip. I don’t know how I would have handled Tamra sitting at a table with them. Brooklyn is one thing. But them?

  “Your sister fits right in,” Catherine comments.

  “Yeah,” I murmur, popping open my soda can, fighting hard to look okay with that. Because I am.

  I am.

  It makes sense. She should fit in around them. She’s practically human herself. She always loved the trips into town—anywhere we ventured in the outside world, away from the pride. “She’s good at that,” I murmur.

  “What?”

  “Fitting in,” I reply, sipping my orange soda. The kind of junk drink Mom never lets us have. The citrus burn-tickles my throat. The tangy aroma fills my nose.

  “Why aren’t you over there with the beautiful people?”

  I shrug.

  “You could be,” Brendan quietly interjects, picking at the crust of his sandwich, a shy, half-smile bending his lips. “You’re as pretty as she is. ”

  “Well, duh. ” Catherine playfully nudges him in the side. “They’re twins. ”

  My lips twist into a smile. I pause with a potato chip halfway to my mouth. “Is that all it takes? You just have to be attractive to hang out with that crowd? You’re pretty. It must involve more than that. ” Biting into my chip, I open my hamburger and examine the questionable patty. Wrinkling my nose, I place the bun back on the burger.

  “Anyway, your sister should be careful. ”

  Brendan-of-few-words adds, “They’ll make her one of them. ”

  Like they’re vampires. Still, his portentous words send a small chill through me.

  Then I shake it off. Tamra and I are sisters. We love each other. We would never hurt each other. Nothing will change that. Maybe it’s finally her turn to belong somewhere.

  Catherine nods, tossing her too-long bangs out of her seawater eyes. “He’s right. You don’t want her to become one of them. ”

  I don’t want a lot of things. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to lose myself in this new life-sucking world. My sister hanging out with populars? Should I now add that to the list? Even if it makes her happy?

  Catherine waves her burger with one hand. “I’m telling you, those girls over there are a pack of wolves. ”

  Because I don’t want to worry about this, because I just want to get through the day and figure out what to do about Will, I joke, “You’re really upbeat, aren’t you? Don’t tell me. I bet you’re a cheerleader. ”

  Brendan snorts.

  Catherine’s mouth sags—the picture of horror. Color burns her cheeks. She shrugs. “So maybe I have an ax to grind with Brooklyn. ”

  “Really?” I mock.

  “They used to be best friends,” Brendan volunteers. “In junior high. ”

  “I told you never to mention that,” Catherine rebukes.

  “Really?” I ask again, this time minus the mockery.

  “Yeah, well. That ended the first week of freshman year when the gods of popularity—”

  “Seniors,” Brendan supplies.

  “—chose Brooklyn as their little protégé. Since then, I’m just a bad memory. ”

  And I can’t help thinking of Cassian, of me and all the other draki blessed with talents the pride deems invaluable. We were the lucky ones. There, I had been admired, prized. While Tamra became invisible. She and the others who never manifested.

  Funny. Here, I am insignificant. Expendable in the eyes of my peers. A strange girl uncomfortable in her skin—well, her human skin. Uncomfortable in her surroundings. Who doesn’t know how to talk, act, or dress.

  It makes me want to go home all the more. Home to the pride. Even if the pride does try to control me. At least there, I’m me.
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