Firelight, p.21
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       Firelight, p.21

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
 
Page 21

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  My gaze flicks away. I can’t manage another word—can’t make myself utter another ugly lie. Without looking, I hear him move away. Feel his presence fade from my side.

  “Wow,” Catherine mutters in an awe-filled voice. “You really just rejected Will Rutledge. ”

  I shrug, fighting the painful lump in my throat where words strangle.

  “You okay?” she asks.

  “Why wouldn’t I be? He’s not really my type. ”

  I glance over my shoulder, glimpse him hunched between his cousins. They’re talking, but not Will. He stares out the window, his gaze fixed on a spot outside. The expression on his face reminds me of Mom. Tamra. Of how they used to look when we lived with the pride. Trapped. Always looking for a way out.

  My chest feels tight, a dense and twisting mass at its center. A punishment he doesn’t deserve.

  “What were you thinking?” Tamra snaps the moment I join her at the curb. Mom’s still several cars back, slowly inching toward us.

  “You should know. That gym, that crowd…” I shiver, squinting against the desert sun. An arid wind lifts the hair off my shoulders. The wild mass of it crackles, as dry and withered as straw.

  Her eyes spark, and I know she’s been waiting for this moment, ever since the pep rally, to light into me.

  Anger builds in my veins. Because she, if anyone, should know what sitting through that pep rally would do to me. She may not be a draki directly, but she understands. We share the same history. We descend from dragons. Dragons who ruled the earth and skies millennia ago. How am I to endure confinement? In a gymnasium brimming with harsh sounds and humans?

  “I know only that you’re out of control. Especially around Will Rutledge. I thought you were going to stay away from him. ”

  I’m trying. Even as it kills me. I’m trying. But I don’t say that.

  Instead, I think of all the time I’ve spent with him that she doesn’t know about and feel a shot of grim satisfaction. “If you’re so worried, then tell Mom,” I toss out, daring her because I know she won’t.

  “So she can move us again?”

  And that’s the crux of the matter for her. I answer with a shrug.

  Her lips press into a hard line and she shakes her perfect head of hair. “I don’t think so. ”

  I look back to the row of cars. Mom’s hatchback edges closer. The sun beats down on my head, roasting my scalp and I shift impatiently on the balls of my feet.

  My fingers flex around the strap of my backpack and I ask before I can help myself, “Do you even care what being here does to me?”

  Her head whips as she turns to stare at me. “Like you cared about me all those years with the pride?”

  Of course, I cared. I wouldn’t have resisted Cassian nearly so hard if I hadn’t. Cassian had been my friend. Well, mostly Tamra’s, but he’s always been there. As permanent and solid as the mountains surrounding me. I could have let myself like him. But I didn’t. I refused to do that to Tamra.

  “What did you want me to do? The pride was our home,” I reminded.

  Her nostrils flare, pain burning bright in her eyes. “Your home. Never mine. I was always the intruder, stuck watching Cassian fawn over you. Everyone loved you. Wanted to be your friend, your boyfriend, your everything—”

  “I never asked for that. Never asked for Cassian to—”

  “No, but you got it. You got him. And not because of you. Not because he loved you. ” She shakes her head. “You know, I could have lived with that, with the two of you together…if he really loved you. ”

  She utters this like it’s the greatest impossibility. A joke. I lift my face as if there’s a breeze in the sucking heat that might give me some relief.

  No relief. She continues, “But it’s not who you are that lures people in. It’s what. Firstborn wins the prize. Everything. Everyone. Even Dad. You two had your little members-only club. ” She inhales deeply through her nose.

  “Are you trying to be cruel?” I snap. “I can’t change any of that. I couldn’t then. I can’t now. ”

  She doesn’t speak for a long moment. When she finally does, her voice is softer. “Can’t you learn to like it just a little, Jacinda?” Some of the spark fades from her amber eyes, and while I see that she resents me—she doesn’t hate me. At least she doesn’t want to.

  I shake my head, not to signify no, but rather that I don’t know how to answer. I know she doesn’t want to hear the truth, that she won’t like it. She doesn’t want to hear that I have been trying. For me, it’s not a matter of choosing to like it here or not. It’s not something I can control. What does it matter anyway? I won’t be here much longer. Of course, I can’t tell her that.

  We climb into the car then. Tamra in the front seat. Me, in the back.

  “Hey! How was school?” Mom asks.

  Tamra says nothing. Neither do I. The air is thick, strained. Mom looks between us as she works her way out of the parking lot. “That bad. ”

  Tamra grunts.

  I wait, holding my breath to see if she will say anything about the pep rally. About me and Will. Moments crawl by and nothing. I sigh softly, relieved. Guess she wants to stay here that badly. Or maybe she regrets her outburst. She’s the queen of bottling up her emotions. Knowing her, she’s regretting letting it spill out.

  I wonder if she would speak up if she knew the truth. Knew who Will really was. Would it matter then? Probably not. For once she’s too focused on herself and getting what she wants. And I can’t blame her for that. Because she’s right. It’s never been about Tamra before. And I always felt bad about that. Then and now.

  But not bad enough to give up on myself. Not bad enough to embrace the ghost my draki will become if I stay here and do nothing. And it’s easy to justify. Because my leaving will set her free. Tamra and Mom. A sad realization. To know the ones you love will be better off without you around.

  “Jacinda?” Mom prods.

  “Great,” I lie. “I had a great day. ”

  Because that’s all either one of them wants me to say.

  20

  We’re almost home when Mom makes her big announcement.

  “I’ll be leaving tomorrow. ”

  I’m stunned for a moment, actually thinking she might mean we all will be leaving tomorrow. Then I remember. She’s going to sell a gem. The glowing amber. Frozen fire.

  I lean forward to look at her, straining to see for myself if she’s serious.

  How can she do it? How can she pretend she’s not taking away a piece of me, tearing off a bit of my heart and selling it to someone who thinks it’s just a chunk of rock? Valuable, but lifeless. Dead.

  “First thing tomorrow morning. You’ll have to take the bus. I plan to be back in time to pick you up Friday afternoon. I’ve told Mrs. Hennessey already and she’ll check in on both you guys. ”

  A feeling starts in my belly, a twisting dread…the same way I felt years ago when Severin arrived at our door to tell us Dad was missing.

  “Mrs. Hennessey?” Tamra wrinkles her nose. Since she doesn’t ask why Mom’s leaving, clearly she already knows. And doesn’t care. Only I care. Only I feel sick at the thought….

  “Where are you going?” I demand, needing to know. Like it will somehow matter. Like maybe, someday, I can find the stone and save it from being lost into perpetuity.

  Mom is silent.

  “Where are you going to sell it?” I press.

  “This is so great,” Tamra says, digging for something in her backpack and asking with an idleness that sets my teeth on edge, “Can we move? But stay in the same school zone, of course. Oh, and how about cell phones? I think we’re the only two in the entire school who don’t—”

  “Settle down, Tam. Don’t get ahead of yourself. ” Mom pats her knee. “This is just to ease some of the strain. We’re not moving yet. This should help buy you girl
s some new clothes…cheer supplies if you make the squad. And maybe I can ease up on my shifts. Stay home a couple nights. I miss my girls. Maybe”—she slides us both a warm look, her eyes bright, shining with promise—”maybe I’ll even see about getting you two a car. ”

  Tam squeals. Flies across the seat to strangle Mom in a hug as she drives.

  A car? A family gem for a car? A hunk of machinery that will last maybe a decade? Hardly a fair trade. I stare out the window, too outraged. Hot emotion thickens my throat, moving me beyond speech.

  The car will be for Tamra, of course. Tam wasn’t kidding before about me not driving. I can’t. The world would be safer with a toddler behind the wheel.

  Blinking burning eyes, I watch the yards fly past. All rock and strategically arranged boulders. Cacti, sleeping bougainvillea, and desert sage. Flowing ribbons of heat dance above the sun-bleached asphalt.

  “I need you girls to promise to behave, check in with Mrs. Hennessey. Let her know if you need anything. I’ll call every day. ”

  “Yes! Anything!” The seat springs protest my sister’s bouncing.

  “Jacinda?” Mom says my name from the front seat. Like she’s waiting. Expecting something from me.

  It’s no use arguing with her. Her mind is made up. But so is mine. Something has to give. Break loose. And it’s going to be me.

  They’re too happy here, settled, well on their way to making the life they’ve always wanted. They don’t want to leave. And I can’t stay.

  “Whatever,” I choke out—vague enough to satisfy her, I hope. For a moment I feel winded, like the air has been punched from my chest.

  Once Dad took us to an amusement park in Oregon. One of those brief getaway vacations from the pride Mom always made a point to plan. Back when Tamra and I were simply sisters whose chief complaint with each other revolved around sharing toys. Before I ever manifested. I plummeted twenty stories on a drop ride. Totally helpless to gravity. Unable to fly, to save myself…

  I feel that same helpless terror now. Because nothing I say will divert Mom off her present course. Nothing will make her realize what she’s doing to me.

  I’m falling.

  And this time, nothing will save me. No mechanical device will work its wonder and jerk me back at the last minute.

  But she does realize, a small voice whispers through me. That’s why she’s doing it. That’s why she brought you here. She wants me to hit ground.

  Later that night, I find Mom packing in her room. She’s dressed for work, planning to leave after her shift ends. The stainless steel box sits on her bed, near her half-packed duffel. Alarm stabs my heart at the sight of it. “You’re not selling them all?” I demand.

  She looks up, folding a shirt. “No. ” She resumes packing, her movements measured, slow.

  I nod, relieved, inch toward the lockbox. My palms tingle, itching to open it. “Can I see it?”

  She sighs. “Don’t do this to yourself, Jacinda. Just forget about it. ”

  “I can’t. ” I touch the lid, stroke it. My throat aches. “Just show me. One last time. ”

  She shakes her head. “You’re determined to make this hard on yourself. ”

  “Show me. ”

  She digs in her pocket, her movements angry, her voice a low mutter as she brandishes the key. Unlocking the box, she flings back the lid.

  I suck in a breath at the instant glow of color.

  Lilting voices surround me. Whisper-soft, they embrace me, remind me of my true nature, slowly fading from this world. But not as fast as Mom thinks. Not with Will around. He’s probably the only reason my draki still lives. In this desert, without gems, without him, I’m doomed. Like Will’s kiss, the stones reach my core…resuscitate me. My skin snaps. Trembles.

  One stone reaches me over the others. I close my eyes, absorbing the thread of fresh energy.
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