Firelight, p.19
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       Firelight, p.19

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
 
Page 19

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  Not Will though. I know better. He’s the wrong kind of distraction.

  I lift my face, try to gulp clean air. Impossible. The gym is stale and stinks of sweating, unclean pores. I drag deeper, sucking breath into my shrinking lungs. I get a sniff of blood buried deep in the wood floor and I feel sick, wilted. Cassian’s voice rolls over me. You can’t like it here. You can’t want to stay. You’re not bred for this misery.

  My legs move numbly. Telling myself pep rallies can’t last long, I pick a seat. Squeeze into the first spot I find, as low as I can get on the bleachers.

  Cheerleaders entertain the crowd, shaking their pom-poms and tossing their bodies in the air. Brooklyn’s out there. Those over-glossed lips curve wide as she shouts at the crowd. And up front, dead center, as close as she can get to the action, sits Tamra, an expression of rapture on her face.

  “Hey. ” A girl with braces—green rubber bands stretching like ropes of slime between the metal—nudges me. “Are you a junior?”

  I stare at her, at the menacing snap of her teeth as she spits out her words. Words that I can’t seem to register.

  I’m in sensation overload. The band’s pounding drums beat like fists inside my head, determined to split my skull open from the inside.

  I shake, jump as screams and shouts break out, even louder than the train wreck of a band.

  Bewildered, I look around. From one set of double doors, a dozen guys rush out onto the court wearing red baseball jerseys. The crowd goes wild, surges up on every side of me like a hurling sea.

  The principal’s voice lifts above it all—a strange, disembodied sound on the microphone. Like God speaking down to the masses.

  At a vicious tug on my sleeve, I look to my side. It’s the girl again. Slimy Braces. “Hey. This is the junior section. ”

  I hear the words, but they don’t penetrate. I can’t understand.

  “What are you? A fish?” she demands.

  Oh. “Sophomore,” I reply.

  She leans closer, thrusts her face into mine, and talks loudly, slowly. As if I’m mentally challenged. “You. Sit. Over. There. ” She stabs the air with a finger, pointing over my shoulder.

  Two girls beside her laugh. Exchange approving looks. Egged on, she shoves at my shoulder. “Go on. Get out of here. ”

  Miserable, I move to go. Not because of Slimy Braces specifically, but because of it all. Because I’m here. Because I’ve lost everything. The sky, my pride…my life.

  Because Mom doesn’t even care what she’s doing to me. Because Tamra is so happy. Because Will, the only one who brings me back to myself, who fills the gnawing ache, is someone I can’t be around.

  I stand. Several rows above the gym floor, my world spins. The dry heat, the foul smells, the stinging noise, the clammy press of people on every side of me…

  It’s all too much. Too. Much. I’m in trouble.

  Someone yells for me to sit down. Others pick up the cry. I wince. Tremble. Feel the blood wash out of my face, drain like water from a sieve.

  Among the clamor, I recognize Slimy Braces’s voice. “Is she going to puke? Gross!”

  Puke? I wish…wish that I were simply sick. And not dying. Not dead. A phantom.

  Gray edges my vision. I can’t see. I can hardly hold myself up. I lift a foot, try to step down. I see my fate. I’m about to eat wood. Or land on a body. I know this. Feel myself falling. Slipping into deepening gray. The air turns to wind on my face.

  Then nothing. It all stops.

  A hand closes around my arm. Snaps me back. Catches me. The gray recedes. Light floods my vision and with it a face.

  Will.

  He leans over me, his face intent and harshly beautiful. His hazel eyes glitter, wild with an emotion I can’t identify. He mutters thickly beneath his breath, then clenches his jaw, saying no more.

  His hand glides down my arm, folds over my hand. His fingers lace with mine, palms kissing. I can feel the fast thud of his heart through this single touch. This, the steady pulse in the cup of his hand, revives me.

  His presence always does this to me. Breathes life back in. Chases away the phantom like fast-fading mist. My skin tightens, rushes with awareness. My chest vibrates. Swells with relief, gratitude, and something else.

  His gaze holds mine. In that moment, it’s quiet. Everything fades to a distant hum. We’re alone.

  18

  “Let’s get out of here. ” The sound of his voice breaks the spell. Once again, noise rushes over me. The discordant band. Hundreds of screaming teens. The unpleasant smells. Dizziness returns. I look around at the wild spin of faces. Slimy Braces stares with wide eyes. Her friends watch in similar shock.

  I nod. More than ready. Suddenly it no longer matters that I can’t be with him. I just need to escape the gym.

  He leads me by the hand down the bleachers. His warm fingers twine with mine. It feels good, like I’m once again safe. He moves with confidence, stepping down from the bleachers. Swerving around latecomers. We pass Catherine. She snatches at my wrist.

  “Where are you—” Her voice dies when she sees Will. She mouths words I can’t make out.

  I move on, tugged ahead.

  “Hey, Will!”

  From high in the bleachers Angus motions Will to sit with him. I don’t see Xander. Probably in a bathroom somewhere with another girl.

  Will shakes his head up at Angus and tightens his hand around mine.

  We pass the center of the gym, right where Tamra sits. I twist my neck, watch as she rises to her feet, frowning darkly. An anxiety I don’t understand brims in her amber eyes.

  Then her gaze swings to the dancing cheerleaders. And it clicks. I understand why she looks at them right then. I shouldn’t look, but I do. I lock my gaze with Brooklyn. Her face burns red and I know it has nothing to do with the exertion of their routine.

  Then I can’t see anymore, even if I wanted to. Will pushes through the heavy double doors. The noise level drops to a muted roar once we’re in the hall. I still feel the beat of the band through the building, rumbling up my body.

  “Where are we going?” I ask.

  Will keeps walking, eating ground with his long strides. He pulls me after him until we’re outside, hurrying beneath the covered walkway. The shade offers little relief from the dry, scalding heat.

  “Do you care?” He glances at me over his shoulder, his eyes glittery warm and intense. My stomach flutters.

  And I think, no. I don’t care. I don’t care where we go. Anywhere is better than here. Anywhere with him.

  We cross back into the main building and Will leads me to a stairwell on the south end, far from the pep rally.

  The slamming door echoes long and deep in the belly of the stairwell, closing us in. It feels like we’re in a narrow capsule, sealed within the earth. Kept apart from everyone and everything. The last two people in the world.

  Will releases my hand and sits on a step. I follow suit, taking the step below his, too self-conscious to sit directly beside him. The concrete is cold and hard under me. The steel railing at my back digs into my spine.

  I usually avoid the tight, airless stairwells in favor of the open ramps in the center of the school that connect the first floor to the second. Even if it takes me longer to reach my class.

  But here, with Will, it doesn’t bother me so much. I can tolerate the closed-in feeling.

  “Thanks for getting me out of there,” I murmur, lacing my fingers around my knees, and looking up at him on his step.

  “Yeah. You looked a little green. ”

  “I don’t handle crowds too well. I’ve always been that way, I guess. ”

  “You might get in trouble,” he warns, staring at me in that strange, hungry way that unravels me. He strokes his bottom lip with a finger. For a flash of a second, his eyes look strange. Different. All glowing irises and thin dar
k pupils. Almost draki-like. I blink to clear my vision. His eyes are normal again. Just my imagination in overdrive. I’m probably projecting missing home and Az—everything—onto him. “Pep rallies are mandatory,” he continues. “A lot of people saw you leave. Teachers included. ”

  “They saw you leave, too,” I point out.

  He leans to the side, propping an elbow on one of the steps behind him. “I’m not worried about that. I’ve been in trouble before. ” He smiles a crooked grin and holds up crossed fingers. “The principal and I are like this. The guy loves me. Really. ”

  Laughter spills from me, rusty and hoarse.

  His grin makes me feel good. Free. Like I’m not running from anything. Like I could stay here in this world, if only I have him.

  The thought unsettles me. Sinks heavily in my chest. Because I can’t have him. Not really. All he can ever be for me is a temporary fix.

  “But you’re worried I’ll get in trouble?” I try not to show how much this pleases me. I’ve managed to ignore him for days now and here I sit. Lapping up his attention like a neglected puppy. My voice takes on an edge. “Why do you care? I’ve ignored you for days. ”

  His smile fades. He looks serious, mockingly so. “Yeah. You got to stop that. ”

  I swallow back a laugh. “I can’t. ”

  “Why?” There’s no humor in his eyes now, no mockery. “You like me. You want to be with me. ”

  “I never said—”

  “You didn’t have to. ”

  I inhale sharply. “Don’t do this. ”

  He looks at me so fiercely, so intently. Angry again. “I don’t have friends. Do you see me hang with anyone besides my jerk cousins? That’s for a reason. I keep people away on purpose,” he growls. “But then you came along…. ”

  I frown and shake my head.

  His expression softens then, pulls at some part of me. His gaze travels my face, warming the core of me. “Whoever you are, Jacinda, you’re someone I have to let in. ”

  He doesn’t say anything for a while, just studies me in that intense way. His nostrils flare, and again it’s like he’s taking in my scent or something. He continues, “Somehow, I think I know you. From the first moment I saw you, I felt that I knew you. ”

  The words run through me, reminding me of when he let me escape in the mountains. He’s good. Protective. I have nothing to fear from him, but everything to fear from his family.

  I scoot closer, the draw of him too great. My warming core, the vibrations inside my chest feel so natural, so effortless around him. I know I need to be careful, exercise restraint, but it feels too good.

  The pulse at his neck skips against his flesh. “Jacinda. ”

  My skin ripples at his hoarse whisper. I stare up at him, waiting. He slides down to land solidly on my step. He brings his face close to mine, angles his head. His breath is hard. Fast. Fills the space, the inch separating us.

  I touch his cheek, see my hand shake, and quickly pull it back. He grabs my wrist, places my palm back against his cheek, and closes his eyes like he’s in agony. Or bliss. Or maybe both. Like he’s never been touched before. My heart squeezes. Like I’ve never touched anyone before.

  “Don’t stay away from me anymore. ”

  I stop myself, just barely, from telling him I won’t. I can’t promise that. Can’t lie.

  He opens his eyes. Stares starkly, bleakly. “I need you. ”

  He says this like it doesn’t make sense to him. Like it’s the worst possible thing. A misery he must endure. I smile, understanding. Because it’s the same for me. “I know. ”

  Then he kisses me. I’m too weak to resist.

  His lips are cool, dry on mine. They shiver—or is that me?

  I kiss him tentatively at first, determined to stay in control this time…but still have this, enjoy the decadent play of his lips on mine, relish the break in my loneliness. He deepens the kiss, and I respond, thoughts dropping away, like pebbles plopping one by one in water, sinking down, down into dark oblivion.
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