Firelight, p.9
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       Firelight, p.9

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
 
Page 9

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  Apparently I’m not the only one who notices. “She’s watching us,” Tamra hisses. “Again. ”

  “Don’t stare,” Mom commands. “And keep your voice down. ”

  Tamra obeys, whispering, “Isn’t it kind of creepy living in some old lady’s backyard?”

  “It’s a lovely neighborhood. ”

  “And all we could afford,” I remind Tamra.

  We skirt the pool, walking one after the other. Mom leads, balancing a small bag of groceries on her hip. I’m last. I look down into the cerulean blue pool to see a shuddering reflection of myself. The chemical odor stings my nostrils.

  Still, the water looks refreshing in this dry, skin-shriveling heat that makes my thirsting pores contract. We don’t even have a tub. Just a shower stall. Maybe I can sneak a swim later. I’ve never been good at following rules.

  Tamra grumbles, “I just hope she doesn’t go through our stuff while we’re gone. ”

  What stuff? It’s not like we smuggled out much in our haste. Clothes and a few personal belongings. I doubt she could find our gems. I haven’t even been able to find them. And I looked when Mom left us to job hunt, hungry for the sight of them. Just a touch. A revitalizing brush against my skin.

  Mom unlocks the door. Tamra follows her inside. I pause and take another look over my shoulder—find Mrs. Hennessey still watching. When she sees me looking, the blinds snap shut. Turning, I walk inside the moldy-smelling pool house, wondering what time she goes to bed.

  That water is calling my name. And for now, it’s closer than the sky.

  As Tamra and I wash dishes, Mom changes for work. The smell of rich butter and cheese lingers in the tiny kitchen. Mom’s five-cheese macaroni with her unique blend of herbs is my favorite. Not that she’s not a fantastic cook in general. She’s a verda draki—was, I mean.

  Verda draki know everything there is to know about herbs, specifically how to optimize them into food and medicines. She can bring the blandest dish to life. In the same vein, she can also concoct a poultice that gets rid of a pimple overnight or draws poison from a wound.

  Tonight’s dinner was for me.

  She’s trying to be good to me—feels sorry for me, I guess. It’s me Mom worries about. Me she wants to be happy here. With Tamra, it’s a given—she wanted to leave the pride years ago.

  Dinner tasted good, delicious. Like home. My stomach is pleasantly full from too much food.

  Mom emerges from her room, dressed in black slacks and a purple sequined halter top. Her bare shoulders gleam like pale marble. Maybe she’ll get a tan here. I frown. Maybe we all will.

  “You sure you girls will be all right?” She looks at me as she asks this.

  “We’ll be fine,” Tamra replies cheerfully. “Now go out there and earn those tips. ”

  Mom’s smile is shaky. “I’ll try, but I do hate leaving you girls alone. ”

  I know it’s terrible and selfish of me, but I’m glad she got hired on for nights. It’s too hard to be around her right now. And this way I only have to worry about Tamra if I sneak out. When I sneak out. Once I decide on the safest place for me to manifest. It can’t be far. I’ll have to walk to get there after all.

  Laughter bubbles like acid inside my chest. Because no place is safe to manifest here. It’s a desert. Without mists and mountains for cover, I’d never be fully cloaked.

  “Don’t stay up too late,” Mom instructs. “And do your homework. ”

  It’s her first night working at the local casino. The night shift pays best. She’ll be gone from ten at night until five in the morning. This way, she can see us off to school, get a nap and then head back for a few hours during the day, clocking out in time to pick us up from school and spend the early evening with us. Ideal as long as she can keep functioning on five hours of daytime sleep.

  “Remember, Mrs. Hennessey is just next door. ”

  I snort. “Like we’re going to bother her. ”

  “Just be careful. ” Her gaze swings meaningfully between me and Tamra, and I wonder what’s really worrying her. That the pride might show up to drag us back? Or that I’ll take off and return to them all on my own?

  “You know,” Tamra points out. “You could just sell a few rubies, an emerald or diamond. ” She shrugs. “Then you wouldn’t have to leave us alone. You wouldn’t have to work so much. ” My sister glances around the small, wood-paneled living room. “We could rent a nice condo. ”

  Mom picks up her purse. “You know we can’t do that. ”

  Because the pride would know instantly if any of the jewels that had been in our family for generations started circulating. They would be looking for that very thing. That’s what they would expect us to do to survive.

  If not for that, I know Mom would sell off every gem we possessed. It’s not as though she places any sentimental value on them. The stones are our draki family legacy, after all—and she wants to kill all ties to that.

  Jewel salvaging’s part of our ancestry. This, in part, is why we are hunted. Money. Greed. Besides the greed for our blood, skin, and bones—which are said to hold healing properties for humans—we’re tracked down for our troves.

  But for us, it’s not about money. It’s about life.

  Arable earth sustains us, but gems offer something more. They’re the icing on the cake, the earth’s purest energy. They fortify us. As with our dragon forefathers, we can detect gemstones beneath the ground. We’re attuned to their energy. Without proximity to either arable earth or gems, it’s akin to starving.

  Tamra props her hands on her hips. “C’mon. Just sell one. I need some new clothes. ”

  Mom shakes her head. “I get paid on Friday. We’ll see what we can spare then. ”

  “Would it be such a big deal to sell one little stone?” I say lightly, pretending I’m not fully aware of the potential danger. Not to mention the pain of losing one of my family’s gems. Selling one would be like selling a piece of me. But maybe worth it. Because nothing will be left of me if I have to stay here. This way the pride would find us and take us back.

  Mom’s gaze swings to me, all glittery and hard. She sees through my words, knows my game. “That would be a bad idea, Jacinda. ”

  It’s a warning. Her threatening tone rings final.

  “Fine,” I reply, setting the last plate into the dish rack and marching through the living area to the room I share with Tamra.

  “Jacinda,” she calls as I drop onto the bed. Mom follows, stops in the doorway, her expression soft. “Don’t be angry. ”

  I punch a limp pillow. “What about any of this is supposed to make me happy?”

  “I know it’s hard. ”

  I shake my head—roll onto my side. Can’t even look at her. She does understand. She’s been there. That’s what makes me the maddest. “You chose to let your draki die. And now you’re choosing for me. ”

  “It’s not easy for me either. ”

  I glare at her over my shoulder. “You’re the one who decided we had to do this. ”

  She shakes her head, sadly, and for a moment I think that maybe I can convince her this is a mistake. Maybe she’ll realize I don’t belong here and never will.

  “I know it was my decision. I didn’t give you an option,” she agrees. “But I want you safe. ”

  A sinking sensation fills me. Safety again. How can I argue against that?

  She continues, “And staying with the pride isn’t safe anymore. I’m your mother. You’re going to have to trust me on this. Moving here was the right thing to do. ” Something lurks in her tone…something that makes me think she still isn’t telling me everything. That there’s even more danger with the pride than she wants me to know about.

  I look away again, stare at the plaid curtains. Inhale the chemical pool-house smell, burning my nostrils. It’s stronger in this room. Even beats out the aroma of mold. “Aren’t you goi
ng to be late for work?”

  Her soft sigh floats over the air. “Good night, baby. I’ll see you in the morning. ”

  Then she’s gone.

  She and Tamra say something to each other. Too softly for me to decipher, so I know they’re talking about me.

  I hear the front door open and shut, sealing me in my prison.

  I haven’t shared a room with Tamra since we were seven years old. I’m not sure how I’ll endure her optimism in the midst of my misery, but I’m trying. No sense raining on her parade.

  “What are you wearing tomorrow?” She stares into our closet. Hard. For several moments. As if something will magically appear that wasn’t there a minute ago.

  Mom gave us the bigger room with the bigger closet. Still, it’s not very full. The size of the closet only emphasizes the scarcity of our wardrobe.

  I shrug. “Jeans. ”

  “You wore jeans today. ”

  “It won’t matter if I wear jeans again. I’ll switch tops. ”

  She plops down on her bed.

  I sit Indian-style on mine, rubbing lotion into my legs. Again. I’m almost halfway through the bottle, but my flesh is still dry and thirsty, hungering for more.

  “You don’t miss anything back home?” I ask, hoping that maybe there’s something. Something that might encourage her to consider returning.

  “Nope. ”

  “Not even Cassian?” I dare to ask.

  Instantly, her mood changes. Her expression clouds over as she tosses out, “He’s not mine to miss, is he?” And it’s there. The old wound.

  “That didn’t stop you from wanting him all these years. ”

  “Cassian can’t be with a defunct draki. His father would never allow it. Right away, I understood that. ”

  Did she? Then why did I sense anger? Hurt? Why did her gaze follow him everywhere all those years if she understood?

  “You two used to be close friends,” I remind her.

  “All three of us were. So?”

  “I wasn’t as close to him as you were. ”

  She sighs. “That was a long time ago. We were kids then, Jace. ” Shaking her head, she looks at me. “Where are you going with this? You think you can get me to believe that I have a shot at Cassian? That I’ll go back for him? Wow, you’re really desperate to go back if you think I’m stupid enough to fall for that. ”

  Embarrassing heat washes up my neck. Am I that transparent? “I just find it hard to believe you’ve totally forgotten him. ”

  Her eyes spark and her voice trembles with feeling. “Would you rather I keep deluding myself? I don’t have a chance with him. The pride won’t let it happen. Cassian won’t let it happen. I’m starting over here. ” Her eyes harden, chill me. “I have my dignity, Jacinda. I won’t let some stupid crush stop me from finally having a life, so can we just drop the subject?”

  Ignoring the request, I ask something I haven’t brought up in a long time, haven’t dared, reluctant to give my sister false hope. “What if you haven’t given it enough time…”

  Her eyes flash furiously. “Don’t go there. If I was going to manifest, I already would have. ”

  I shrug. “Maybe you’re just a late bloomer? Nidia manifested late—”

  “A thirteen-year-old is a late bloomer, not me. Now, please, can we drop it already? I don’t want to talk about the pride anymore!”

  “Okay, okay,” I say, returning my attention back to my legs. Dry again.

  I shake my head fiercely, furiously. My hand works harder, pressing the lotion deep into my skin. Scent-free lotion because I’ve had enough with the odors, the smells that constantly suffocate me in the human world.

  Already, I feel different. It’s working. Mom’s getting her way. My draki is withering. Dying in this desert.
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