Ryans bed, p.21
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       Ryan's Bed, p.21


  conversation in my head about why my dead sister wasn’t talking to me anymore . . . in my head.

  Cora grabbed her bag and stood. She hugged it against her chest as I clicked out of everything on my computer. “Everyone is going to Patty’s for lunch. Are you going too?”

  I grabbed my bag and began walking out of the library. “Who’s everyone?” I asked as we got to the door.

  She ducked out behind me. “The guys. Ryan, I think. Erin. Her group.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. The popular people.”

  Ah. Popularity.

  The stuff normal teenagers cared about.

  I glanced over at her, but she wasn’t looking at me. “I’m not popular.”

  “Yeah, you are.”

  “No.” I shook my head. “I’m not.”

  “Yes, you are. Trust me. You are, even if you don’t know it. You’re with Ryan, and the other girls are scared of you.”

  They should be. There were two of me, and one of us could haunt their asses. I snickered at that but didn’t reply. I wasn’t popular, and I didn’t care. I hadn’t cared in Arizona, and that hadn’t changed. Ryan was the only benefit of moving.

  I stopped in the middle of the hallway. Some students protested behind us. I ignored them.

  Cora had taken a step forward, but she stopped and looked back.

  “Is that why you wanted to be with him?” I asked.

  Her eyes enlarged, and her mouth made a popping sound. “Uh, what?” She adjusted the bag in front of her, hugging it tighter.

  “You want to be popular?” I shook my head. “But aren’t you? You’re friends with those guys. Shouldn’t that make you popular too?”

  A strangled squeak left her throat. “This is so embarrassing.”


  People were trying to press around us. One guy cursed at us, then saw me and coughed to cover it up. “Sorry. Hey, Mackenzie.” He was gone before I could say anything, but I could see the back of his neck turning red.

  “See? DJ Reynolds has no idea who I am. That would not have happened with me.” She pointed in the direction he went.

  “No, I’m not. I’m . . .” Damaged. Broken. Half-dead. Having sex—make that I had sex. Once. I was sexually experienced, kind of. “This is not normal me. Trust me. Normal me is not popular. Normal me . . .” I hesitated, but normal me was like Cora. Somewhat.

  Everyone likes you, Mac. Get over yourself. You never have to try for anything.

  Willow had said to me the day we found out we were moving. I flinched when I remembered.

  She had been so wrong. She was the one everyone liked. Even my two best friends had dropped me because they missed her so much. Didn’t she get that? Had she really not gotten that? She was the star.

  I looked away. “Normal me was invisible. Trust me.”

  I was wrong. I hadn’t been like Cora. She cared the way Willow cared, but Willow had succeeded. She’d thrived with the social hierarchy stuff.

  I needed to stop thinking about Willow.

  I felt her snort and thought to her, Sorry, but you make me slightly deranged.

  Only slightly?

  Cora and I needed to get moving. The next bell would ring soon, and I clamped on to her arm. She was watching me with her head tilted to the side, but I wanted to make sure she heard me.

  “I lost my sister. My brother moved to a different school, and I found out last night that my dad is leaving our family. If I could switch places with you, I would. I’m not saying you don’t have problems or struggles. Everyone does, but I’m saying rethink what you want. If you want to be popular so much, forget it. It isn’t worth it.”

  She looked down, but I heard her say, “It isn’t worth it to you.”

  “It isn’t worth it to anyone.”

  That would be utopia. If everyone was kind, if everyone was worthy. If there were no hatred, pain, or suffering. If people couldn’t see someone’s skin color, quality of their clothes, where they lived. If nothing mattered except the heart and mind.

  I wanted to live in a world like that. I could almost taste it, I wanted it so bad.

  I gentled my tone, “If I’m popular, then trust me. I’m miserable. You aren’t. I’ve seen you with the guys.”

  The second bell rang.

  I was late, but as I turned down the empty hallway, which was thankfully empty, I looked back. Cora hadn’t moved, her back toward me.

  Hope fluttered in my chest. It was small, but it was there.

  A fourth piece inside me found the other three. They fit the right way.

  Cora acted differently the rest of the day. I don’t know why it made me feel good, but it did. We went to lunch with everyone else, taking seats in the booth next to the guys. When Erin and her friends came over, Cora didn’t react like she normally did. She didn’t get all nervous. She didn’t start fidgeting. She didn’t jump when Erin said hello.

  She was cool. There was a confidence radiating from her, and I knew the guys took note. Erin too, with a slight frown as she went back to her table of friends. The guys kept sneaking looks at Cora on the way back, and for the rest of the day.

  I wasn’t sure if Ryan noticed anything. He was more perceptive than people realized. He just hid it better.

  Kirk nudged my shoulder in our seventh period.


  He pointed his pencil at Cora, who was filling out the worksheet we’d all gotten. “What’s going on with her?”

  As if hearing him—and she might’ve—she straightened, holding her head high. If she’d been wearing a crown, it would have remained firmly in place, not like the other times when she’d duck her head or hunch her shoulders.

  I almost smiled with pride, but I shrugged instead. “I don’t know. She looks sexier than normal, doesn’t she?”

  Ryan glanced at me, a strange look on his face.

  But Kirk was studying Cora, and he nodded. “Yeah. She does.” A mystified expression flitted over his face. He nodded again. “Yeah.”

  He grabbed his worksheet and bag and left our table. Sliding into the seat next to Cora, he nudged her arm.

  I felt Ryan’s gaze on me, but I bent over to finish my worksheet.

  His foot went to the book rest underneath my seat, and he pulled my chair toward his. He drew me close enough that our legs pressed against each other’s. “What happened there?”

  I shrugged. “Beats me.” But I was grinning. I almost felt silly.

  Something felt right. For once.

  Ryan didn’t push it. I knew he’d ask later, and I’d tell him. Cora was his friend. He’d be happy.

  After a few more minutes, I stopped trying to fill out my worksheet. My concentration was useless, so I sat back and studied the way Cora and Kirk were half-flirting/half-studying each other. They both knew something new was happening, but neither fully understood what it was.

  Ryan gave me the answers for the few problems I didn’t have done, and after class, I hurried to catch up with Cora.

  I bumped into her arm, grinning.

  She looked over and ducked her head, but I saw her smile.

  “So.” I jerked a thumb toward Kirk, who was headed toward his locker. “What was that about?”

  “You know.” She weaved over, deliberately bumping back into me. “I took your advice to heart.”

  “That you aren’t miserable?”

  She laughed, shaking her head. “No. Well, yes.” We veered toward her locker.

  I went with her and Ryan passed us, moving toward his. But he looked back with the same questioning expression on his face.

  Later, I mouthed, and he nodded, stopping at Kirk’s locker first.

  “Do you like Kirk?”

  She’d never talked about him, just about Ryan.

  “I don’t know.” She opened her locker and began to put her books into her bag. “Maybe. I mean . . .” She paused, looking at him as he joked with Ryan. “After Ryan, he’s the hottest guy in school.”

  She stared at him, really
stared at him, and let out a sigh. “What am I doing? He made out with the Bellini twins last night. He’d never be interested in me.”

  I frowned as I really looked at Cora.

  She was a little smaller than me. Her brown hair was pulled back into a messy bun with some fraying ends framing her face. Aqua eyes. A fair complexion under a smattering of freckles. She wasn’t beautiful in the heavy-makeup kind of way. She was pretty in a natural way.

  She was kind, shy, and loyal. I never heard her say anything negative about her friends. The only person she’d been negative about was Erin, but that made sense. She was terrified of the girl.

  There was no reason Kirk wouldn’t want to be with her.

  “He’d be nuts not to want you,” I told her.

  She fixed me with a dark look. “Come on.”

  “I’m serious. I mean, I’m taking inventory. If he doesn’t want to date you, the only reason would be because he wants to keep fooling around with people who aren’t girlfriend material. Sorry, Cora, but you’re dating material. And he was interested. He asked me what was different with you today.”

  “What’d you say?” She was so still.

  I leaned against her neighbor’s locker. “I told him I didn’t know, but you seemed sexier to me. He agreed.”

  Her mouth almost fell open and color splashed across her cheeks. “He did?”

  “Yeah. He did.”

  She ducked her head again, sneaking a look at him.

  Ryan and Kirk were both watching us.

  Kirk was staring at Cora like he’d never seen her before. Ryan watched me with the same expression. It took me a second to place it, because it was different. His eyes were locked on me, his mystified expression from before mixing with a look of approval. Then it hit me, and I almost fell back against the locker behind me.

  I was the old me.

  This was something I would’ve done.

  I would’ve helped a friend who needed a pep talk. There might’ve been a guy I helped steer in the right direction, and I would’ve been at that friend’s locker talking to her about the guy. This was the real me. It felt good. I mean, it felt weird, but it felt right.

  Ryan was seeing this side of me for the first time.

  I pulled my gaze away and glanced down.

  Willow was with me. I felt her, and I waited, expecting her to say something. She didn’t. She remained quiet, and I couldn’t help myself.

  Really? I shot at her. You don’t say anything this time? And like she was really standing there, I heard a huff right before she turned and walked away.

  She left me. I was struck speechless a second.

  “You okay?”

  Cora had shut her locker and had her bag over one shoulder. She was waiting for my response.

  “Oh yeah.” I stood straight. “I’m good.”

  My ghost of a sister left me, and I didn’t want her to go.

  I’d gotten used to her haunting me.

  “What was up with you and Cora today?”

  I knew this question was coming, and I looked over to Ryan in the driver’s seat. He’d asked me where we were heading after school, and he hadn’t flinched one bit when I said, “My dad’s mistress’s house.” He hadn’t questioned how I knew her address.

  I rested my head back against the headrest and smiled. I hadn’t needed a PowerPoint presentation to get him to be a stalker with me.

  But I did need to answer his question. I gazed at him as we drove down the highway, the wind whipping his hair back.

  How could I explain that I’d only said a few words to Cora, but it seemed to have helped? Or how much that meant to me for some stupid reason?

  How could I tell him Willow had left me today, and I ached at her absence?

  How could I—Dude, stop. Talk to him.

  I almost grinned, hearing my sister’s voice again. It settled me.

  “I don’t really know,” I said aloud.

  Ryan frowned as he rolled up his window. The wind noise faded, and it seemed intimate in his truck. “What’d you say?”

  I cleared my throat, sitting straighter in my seat. “I don’t really know. That’s what I said.”

  “What does that mean?”

  I shook my head a little. “She was telling me that I’m popular, and I told her to go jump off a cliff.” Same sentiment. Different words. I shrugged. “I’m miserable—” Ryan turned to look at me for a second. “Being popular isn’t worth it.”

  He was still frowning, but he nodded as he went back to watching the road. Flicking on the turn signal, he merged into the passing lane, and we moved smoothly, seamlessly around a white car.

  “Kirk thinks she’s hot,” he said. “Was that your doing?”

  I turned to sit almost sideways, as much as my seatbelt allowed. “Cora used to like you until I came along. Is there a part of you that wishes she still did?”

  I stared at him hard.

  He threw me an annoyed look. “That’s what you got out of that?”

  “You’re annoyed with me.”

  “Annoyed?” He flashed me a cocky grin. “No, never annoyed. I’ve started to be able to read you and figure out where you’re going, but this thing with Cora threw me. That’s all. I’m not worried about Cora or Kirk. If Cora’s new confidence is attractive to him, I hope she keeps it up, and I hope he doesn’t hurt her. I’m more worried about you.”

  “Why? I’m fine.”

  I was. Totally sane.

  I was fine that my mom wasn’t home again. I was fine that I wasn’t driving to see Robbie today. I was fine that I’d lost another member of my family.

  Yes. It was all copacetic with me.

  There were no slightly psychotic tendencies at all.

  My nails sank into my arm. I didn’t pull them out, even when I felt a trickle of blood. It felt good, refreshing.

  Thirty minutes later, we turned off the interstate and Ryan glanced down. “Holy shit! Mac!” He reached for my arm, and I pulled my nails away. Five indented pockets had formed, and blood flowed from all of them.

  He cursed under his breath and hit the turn signal, veering into a gas station parking lot. “What the fuck just happened?” Slamming to a stop in front of the building, he threw open his door. “Get out. We’re getting that fixed.”

  He held my arm, locking the door with his free hand and pocketing the keys. With a firm hold, he led me inside and asked for the first aid kit. The gas attendant eyed me warily but handed over the kit and said the bathroom was in the back.

  We started down an aisle, and he barked at us, “I meant outside.”

  Ryan glared at him. “Thanks. Your sensitivity is commendable.”

  The attendant shrugged and grabbed some smokes for another customer.

  Ryan’s back hit the door hard, and he continued to pull me with him, glaring over my head.

  There was a metal picnic table around the corner near the hose. Ryan went there instead, patting the top. “Hop up.”

  He placed the kit beside me, and as I sat, that numb feeling came back. It was like a blanket encasing me, shielding me from the
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