Firelight, p.11
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       Firelight, p.11

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
 
Page 11

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  A slow certainty steals over me. I need to keep my draki alive long enough to get back. The thought of it dying terrifies me, makes me desperate. Desperate enough to do something I shouldn’t.

  Desperate enough to tell Will yes.

  “You’re probably wondering what you did in a past life to get stuck with us. ” Catherine says this as she drowns a fry in ketchup, her many rings glinting as she works her fingers.

  “Gee, thanks,” Brendan murmurs.

  She gives him a look. “Don’t be so sensitive. You know I adore you. ”

  I lower my mostly uneaten burger. “Of course not. Just glad for anyone who wants to be my friend. ”

  “Hey, Jacinda!” Nathan calls from his table, half rising. He waves and jerks his head, beckoning me over.

  Catherine’s smile slips. She reaches for another fry, avoiding my gaze. “You’ve got plenty of people willing to be your friend. Go on. Sit with Nathan. He’s a decent guy—unfortunate pink shirt and all. No hard feelings. ”

  I send Nathan an easy wave but remain in my seat. “I’m good where I am. ” Good at least in this. In hanging out with Catherine and the quiet Brendan. They’re undemanding. Uncomplicated. Easy to be with when everything else is so hard right now. I need that. “Unless you want me to go. ”

  “No. ” Catherine flashes a grin. “Stay. ”

  Nodding, I eat another chip. My gaze drifts across the room, to my sister. Her hair falls smoothly past her shoulders, gleaming like flaming silk.

  The same boy who walked with her in the hall yesterday sits beside her. Across from her, another one vies for her attention. Cute guys. My heart expands a little. For her. Who knew she could flirt? Cassian wasn’t the only one who rejected her, after all. Showed her his back when she came around. The boys in the pride rarely spoke to her. They couldn’t. Their families too afraid of letting them get involved with a defunct draki. They wouldn’t risk contamination of their gene pool.

  I look away, stare down at my tray. Sorry that I can’t share in her pleasure. Sorry that I have to do everything in my power to simply abide this life that gives her such happiness.

  Sorry that maybe, in the end, I will lose the battle and have to leave her behind.

  10

  The day stretches on, endless. It feels like seventh period will never arrive. The hands on the round-faced wall clocks crawl, skipping over each minute in nervous twitches. By the time I reach study hall, the pulse at my neck jumps in time with that bouncing minute hand.

  I hover in the doorway for a moment, scanning the near-empty classroom. Now, finally. I will see him again.

  Heart pounding, I sit at the same table as yesterday and hope he arrives before Catherine does, so I don’t have to explain to her that I want to sit with him. And I do, I realize—I accept. I want to sit with him, talk to him, see him, go out with him…everything. As long as I’m here, anyway. And not just for the sake of my draki. I would have liked Will Rutledge no matter what I was.

  With a quick smile at me, Nathan veers to another table. At least I don’t have to worry about him trying to sit with me again. The warning bell peals overhead. My breath comes faster. I watch the door. Any second now.

  Catherine rushes in, long bangs flying. I try to hide my disappointment as she, not Will, drops next to me. The final bell rings. Still, I wait, look for Will.

  Mr. Henke’s voice drones at the front of the room, reciting the same speech as yesterday. Still, I look at the door.

  “He’s not here. ”

  I start at Catherine’s voice. “Who?”

  “Will. I saw him and his cousins leave during fifth period. ”

  I shrug like I don’t care. Like I hadn’t decided to go out with him. Like he hadn’t asked. Like every fiber of my being isn’t weeping in need for him.

  “It’s okay. After the vibes you two were giving off yesterday and today in PE, I figure you were looking for him. ”

  I don’t respond. My hands are shaking. I tuck them under the table. I had counted on seeing him. On feeling my draki again. On him bringing me to life, making me remember…me. I needed that, and now that I can’t have it my chest feels crushed. The weight of my disappointment presses down on me.

  Catherine digs in her backpack. Desperation feeds my heart enough to ask, “So. Where is he?” As if I expect her to know.

  “Here. ” She slides a note across the table to me. “He gave me this to give to you. ”

  I stare at the folded square piece of paper for a long moment, my heart hammering. Finally, I take it. The paper is cool and crisp beneath my trembling fingers as I unfold it, taking my time to smooth out the creases and study his handwriting.

  Jacinda,

  Sorry, but I had to leave town for a family thing. Try not to knock any other teachers unconscious while I’m gone.

  See you soon (but not soon enough),

  Will

  A sigh rattles loose from my lips. I shake my spinning head. This is crazy. Me pining for a hunter. A hunter pining for me. I should know better, even if he can’t. Especially if he can’t.

  “He and his cousins miss a lot of school,” Catherine continues.

  I can believe that. They would have been north of here a little over a week ago. Hunting me in the Cascades. I doubt they limited their activities to weekend hunts. They would have had to miss school.

  “Really. ” My fingers tap my lips now. They feel chapped. Dry like the rest of me.

  “Uh-huh. ” Catherine takes out her chemistry book, opens to the periodic table, and begins filling out a worksheet. “And get this…you know why they miss so much?”

  I shake my head even though I do know. Better than her. My heart clenches like a fist in my chest, squeezing…squeezing…

  “Their family is big into fly-fishing. Nice, huh? Ditching school to fish. ” She drums the end of her pencil on the table as she studies the chart. The sound echoes the stutter of my heart. I slide off my stool, clutching the edge of the table.

  Fly-fishing. It was almost amusing. If it didn’t make my chest hurt so much.

  Catherine continues, “They take these trips about every…Jacinda, are you okay?”

  Will has gone…hunting again. Probably back where they nearly captured me. Hunting my pride.

  Will’s not my savior. He’s a killer.

  It’s the wake-up call I need. I’m a fool to think a hunter is going to save me. Protect me. Keep me alive. I’ll find another way. My fist clenches around his note, crumpling it into a ball in my hand. I’ll forget about Will. Sever whatever bond I feel with him. Only the decision doesn’t make me feel any better. My chest hurts even more.

  Over the next few nights, I manage to sneak away to the neighborhood golf course twice to fly. Each time ends with me violently ill. The manifests are painful and difficult, but I’m no less determined. I have no choice. I have to keep trying. I have to fly. Even if Will was here, I would need to do this, need to learn to keep my draki alive all on my own.

  I also work on Mom. Nag and plead every chance I get. Until she gazes at me dully, quietly, beyond arguing but still firm on us staying in Chaparral. Tonight, however, it’s Tamra hassling her.

  Mom turns from the stove, a marinara-coated spoon in her hand. She asks again in that incredulous tone, “How much?”

  Steam from a pot of pasta rises on the air behind her. I try not to stare at the billowing cloud that reminds me of the mists back home. My skin starts to ache.

  I force my gaze back to Mom. She looks tired. Closer to her actual age of fifty-six. Draki age differently, more slowly. Our average life span runs about three hundred years. Once we reach puberty, the aging process slows. Right now, I look close to my age, but I’ll look like a teenager for several years to come. Even when I’m thirty.

  Time is catching up with Mom though. The consequences for relinquishing her draki. She’s human now
, and she finally looks it. In the creases on her forehead. In the tiny lines edging her eyes. Those lines are perpetual. Not just when she’s worried anymore.

  I stand at the table with three dinner plates in my hands, watching as Tamra waves her flyer, deftly avoiding Mom’s question. “Come on, Mom. It looks great on college applications. ”

  I lower my head. Center a plate on the placemat. Hide rolling my eyes.

  This is what Tamra wants. I should try to support her. Try not to choke on the image of Tamra hanging out with Brooklyn and her sisters of cheer.

  “It’s a lot of money, Tamra. ”

  “Money we don’t have,” I can’t resist adding. Because I see how hard Mom works. Stale cigarette smoke from the casino clings to her, even after she showers and washes her hair. It’s there. Deep in her pores.

  Tamra glares at me. I stare back, undaunted. Doesn’t she see the shadows under Mom’s eyes? Doesn’t she hear her come in at five in the morning?

  “I can get a part-time job. Please, Mom. Just sign the form. We don’t even know if I’ll make the team. We only have to pay if I do. ” The desperation in Tamra’s voice is something new. Before, with the pride, I had only ever seen it in her eyes. Never heard it in her voice. Back home she wanted a lot of things, but she was resigned to life the way it was. I wonder why she wants this so badly?

  I blurt the question out without thinking.

  Tamra looks at me, her eyes hard chips of amber. “It’s something I never even hoped for—and now it’s possible. ”

  And I get it. She can have it now. Normal. Acceptance. For however long we last in Chaparral. I feel the burden of that. I know it’s largely up to me whether things work out here.

  This is a piece of her fantasy. The fantasy of being a normal girl with a normal life. For Tamra, cheerleading is the piece of ordinary she wants.

  Mom stares at the permission form, the grooves around her mouth deepening. If she signs, Tamra can try out, and if she makes the squad, we’ll have to come up with the money for uniforms and supplies.

  I have no doubt Tamra will make the squad. I watch, curious to see what Mom will do, if she will surrender to at least one daughter. I know this is different, but I can’t help thinking, Why doesn’t she care what I want?

  Mom nods, the motion weary, defeated. “Okay. ”

  And in that moment, I feel defeated, too.

  My life has fallen into a quiet pattern since Will left. School, dinner with Mom, homework, listening to music and watching TV with Tamra.

  I walk the halls like a coldly functioning robot. My draki continues its slow descent. Suffering in silence, that part of me fades into dark. Like a healing wound, it throbs less, hurts less, feels less. Wildly, I want to tear it open, rip wide the jagged edges…make it bleed. Make it remember.

  By Friday I wonder if something hasn’t happened to Will. Almost every moment I wonder where he is, where he hunts. My pride isn’t the only one out there, but we don’t interact with others so I don’t know where they are—where Will might be.

  It’s wrong of me, but I hope his family is hunting another pride. Just not mine. I want those I left behind safe—Az, Nidia…even Cassian.

  When it comes to Will, my feelings are terrible and confusing. To want him safely back one moment, but pray that whatever draki he hunts is safe and free in the next. The two wishes conflict.

  I convince myself my pride is safe. We aren’t a weak species. We have our talents. Our strengths. When innocent hikers stumble past Nidia’s mists, she shades their memories and guides them back out. But hunters?

  I cringe. It’s one of those things never discussed, but always understood. The pride must be protected. Even if Nidia shaded a hunter’s memory, he could return to hunt our kind. He would forever be a predator.

  A predator that needed destroying.

  Before now, I never thought anything wrong with the practice. Especially after Dad. But now…

  I see only Will’s face. At the thought of him dead, my throat aches. For the boy who spared me. The boy whose beauty seems an impossible dream, unreal to me now, so many days since I’ve had my last glimpse of him.
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