“Is this class ever going to end?”
My best friend, Brooklyn, draped her upper body across her desk in a dramatic reenactment of Desdemona’s death in Othello. She buried her face in a tangle of arms and long black hair for effect. It was quite moving. And while I appreciated her freedom to express her misgivings about the most boring class since multicelled organisms first crawled onto dry land, I wondered about her timing.
“Miss Prather,” our Government teacher, Mr. Gonzales, said, his voice like a sharp crack in the silence of study time.
Brooklyn jerked upright in surprise. She glanced around as our classmates snickered, either politely into their hands or more rudely outright.
“Is there something you’d like to share with the class?”
She turned toward Mr. Gonzales and asked, “Did I say that out loud?”
The class erupted in laughter as Mr. G’s mouth formed a long narrow line across his face. Miraculously, the bell rang and Brooklyn couldn’t scramble out of her seat fast enough. She practically sprinted from the room. I followed at a slower pace, smiling meekly as I walked past Mr. G’s desk.
Brooklyn stood waiting for me in the hall, her face still frozen in surprise.
“That was funny,” I said, tugging her alongside me. She fell in line as we wound through the crush of students, fighting our way to PE. I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t particularly enjoy having my many faults and numerous shortcomings put on display for all to see, so why I would fight to get there was beyond me.
“No, really.” She tucked an arm through mine. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
I couldn’t help but smile despite the weight on my chest, a weight that seemed endless. “Which is why that was funny.”
I did that a lot lately. Smiled. It was easier than explaining why I wasn’t.
“You don’t get it,” she said. “This is exactly what I’ve been talking about. Everything is weird ever since … you know.”
I did know. Ever since Jared Kovach came to town. Ever since he’d saved my life after a huge green delivery truck slammed into me. Ever since we’d found out he was the Angel of Death and had been sent not to save my life but to take it. To tweak the timing. To take me sooner than nature—or a huge green delivery truck—had intended.
And ever since I found out I’d been possessed by a demon when I was six years old.
Still, that wasn’t the worst part of that day all those years ago. The worst part was the fact that my parents were gone. Vanished in a whirlwind when some guy—we still had no idea who—opened the gates of hell. And I’d led them straight to it. The fact that a demon—Malak-Tuke, to be exact, Lucifer’s second-in-command—escaped from his fiery pit and decided to crash at my place was just the icing on the cake. But I didn’t know any of this until two months ago.
I’d been living with my grandparents since the disappearance, but my semi-normal existence changed forever when I was knocked into the street by a skateboarder and hit by that truck.
That near-death experience taught me a valuable lesson: Never get hit by a huge green delivery truck if I can help it. But if I hadn’t, if my life hadn’t almost ended that day, then Jared Kovach would not have been sent. And oddly enough, Jared Kovach was definitely worth the risk.
The events that followed were both terrifying and life changing. I learned that there really was a heaven and a hell. That there really were angels and demons. That I was a prophet, the last prophet in a long line of incredible women, descended from a powerful woman named Arabeth. And I’d learned that I had a demon inside me, that I’d had him inside me for years.
Even Jared had never seen anything like it. Most people possessed by evil spirits were lucky to survive. People possessed by demons—a rarity, from what I’d been told—never survived more than a month. Ever. And yet here I stood. As possessed as a girl with a demon inside her could be.
And, yes, things had been weird.
“People are acting strange, and the world has dark, fuzzy edges,” Brooklyn continued.
Before I could suggest a visit to the school nurse, an arm snaked around my neck from behind and I felt something poke my temple. A quick sideways glance told me it was a hand shaped to resemble a gun. “Give me all your money,” Glitch said through gritted teeth, pulling out his best Clint Eastwood impersonation.
Glitch, a connoisseur of computers, skipping, and coasting through school with less than stellar grades, was our sidekick and partner in crime. We weren’t the greatest criminals, so we really didn’t partner up for such endeavors often. Glitch and I had grown up together. He was half Native American and half Irish American, and he had the dark skin and hazel green eyes to prove it.
I wasn’t sure what I’d done to deserve either of my two best friends. Even when they found out I’d been possessed—was still possessed—they didn’t bail on me. That was true friendship. Or insanity. Either way.
I shook off his arm and tossed a grin at him from over my shoulder.
“You cut your hair,” I said to him, noticing his blond highlights were missing. The trim left only his jet-black hair, spiked as usual with just enough gel to make him almost cool. He was too much of a geek to be genuinely cool, but he was getting there.
“Yeah.” He raked his fingers through it. “So, what’s up with you two?”
“Brooke feels fuzzy.”
He bounced around until he was facing us, walking backwards with his backpack slung over his shoulder, his brows drawn in concern. “Fuzzy? Really?”
“I didn’t say I felt fuzzy. I said the world has fuzzy edges.”
He looked around to test her theory then back at us. How he managed to walk backwards in this crowd was beyond me. And rather awe inspiring. If I’d tried that, I would soon resemble a pancake covered with lots of footprints.
He furrowed his brows again in thought. “I don’t think it’s so much fuzzy as nauseatingly yellow, a color that is supposed to calm us, I’m sure. But did you hear?” he asked, suddenly excited. “Joss Duffy and Cruz de los Santos got in a fight during third.”
Brooklyn pulled me to a stop, her expression animated. “What did I tell you? Joss and Cruz are best friends. Everything is turned upside down.”
As bad as I hated to admit it, she was right. I’d felt it too: A quake. A disturbance in the atmosphere. Everyone seemed to have short fuses lately. The slightest infraction set people off. We’d been warned about an impending cosmic war. Was this how it would begin?
With a sigh, I started for PE again. Maybe we were reading too much into it. Or maybe the moon was full. People did crazy things when the moon was full. And besides, I didn’t want everything to be turned upside down. I’d had enough of upside down when I was hit by that truck. When I was possessed by Satan’s second-in-command. When my parents disappeared.
Some days I was almost okay with the fact that a demon had slipped inside my body when I was six, nestled between my ribs, curled around my spine. Other days that fact caused me no small amount of distress. On those days, I walked with head down and eyes hooded as my vertebrae fused in the heat of uncertainty and my bones writhed in sour revulsion.
Today was one of those days.
I’d awoken in a panic to the sensation of being crushed, unable to escape an invisible force, unable to breathe. The remnants of a nightmare still ricocheted against the walls of my lungs, squeezing them until air became a precious but fleeting commodity. At first I thought I was having an asthma attack, then I realized it was only a dream. The dream.
And the dream was always the same. In it, I would float back to that day so long ago and inhale the beast all over again, his taste acidic, his flesh choking and abrasive. Since I was just a kid at the time, one would think it was a small demon, possibly a minion or a lower-level employee. Like a janitor. But I’d seen him that day. How his shoulders, as black as a starless sky, spanned the horizon. How his head reached the tops of the trees. “Small” was not an accurate descriptor.
And now, thanks to my pathetic need for sleep, I could relive that memory over and over. Yay, me. On the bright side, I’d ditched that other recurring dream I’d been having since I was five. The one where bugs scurried under my sheets and up my legs. That thing was messed up.
Still, if not for all that, Jared would never have come to Riley’s Switch. We may be only a tiny speck on the map of New Mexico, hidden among juniper trees and sage bushes in the middle of no and where, but we were important enough to warrant an extended visit from the Angel of Death. Surely that meant something in the grand scheme of things.
“And Cameron has been acting strange too,” Brooke continued, mentioning the fifth member of our posse, if you included Jared. Which I did. But I hadn’t seen Cameron in a couple of days, which was odd.
“That’s because Cameron has a crush on you,” I said without thinking. I cringed when Glitch’s eyes widened a fraction of an inch. He caught himself instantly and turned away.
“No, seriously,” she said, oblivious. “He keeps asking if I’m okay. If you’re okay. If Glitch is okay.”
Glitch whirled back around and glared, but Brooke missed it once again.
“We need to practice,” she said, pulling a compact mirror out of her backpack. “Try again to get a vision, only try harder this time. Put a little elbow grease into it.”
She handed it to me as Glitch glowered at her, his mood taking an acerbic turn. “Really? Here?”
“Yes, really, here. She has to be ready.”
Along with all the other magnificent oddities in my life, my shaky status as a prophet meant I had visions. But visions weren’t normal, and I was trying desperately to get back to normal. It was my new goal in life, right after grow five inches and get boobies. So as far as everyone on the planet was concerned, the visions had stopped. They hadn’t been getting stronger every day, filling my head with images and knowledge I didn’t want. Didn’t need.
That was my story, and I was sticking to it.
Sadly, my sudden inability to have a vision only made Brooke even more determined. She poked and prodded me into practicing nonstop. So I would touch her arm or her hand and pretend to try really, really hard to have a vision, only to be disappointed again.
I had sunk so deep into this lie, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the visions were coming at me left and right—so much so, I had to fight the urge to dodge them. I didn’t want to know the future or the past. Normal people had no such luxury, and since normal was my new goal in life since my old one—get Jared Kovach to fall in love with and marry me—had been thwarted by my grandparents. Just one more reason for my smiles to be contrived.
But Brooke, ever the trouper, had done some research. She read that a shiny surface helped psychics and mediums see into the future or the past, hence crystal balls. And according to her research, mirrors worked just as well. Hence her compact.
“I have to get to History,” Glitch said, his shoulders tense. “Mr. Burke threatened to skin me alive if I’m tardy again, though I don’t think he actually has the authority to do that.”
“Later,” I said, opening the compact with a sigh. The last thing I needed was to get a vision every time I looked in a mirror. The experience was bad enough as it was.
As we exited the main building and headed for the gym, I looked down into the shiny surface. Brooke dragged me along so I wouldn’t fall on my face. I pretended to concentrate, trying not to focus on the fact that my gray eyes seemed darker than usual and my auburn hair seemed curlier. Curlier? I leaned in for a closer look. Oh, the gods were a cruel and humorless lot. Because that’s what I needed. More curls.
“Does my hair seem curlier to you?”
“Curlier than an ironing board, yes. Curlier than a French poodle, no. Now, concentrate.” She rubbed her hands together to emphasize her enthusiasm. “It’s vision time, baby. We need them now more than ever.”
Even at their height, my prophetic visions hadn’t been terribly useful. What on earth could I gain from looking into a mirror besides lower self-esteem?
“Are you even concentrating?” Brooke asked as I tripped on a pebble. This took coordination. An attribute I lacked in spades. But she believed with every fiber of her being that my visions were the key to everything. According to prophecy, I was supposed to stop an impending war between humans and demons before it ever started, but how I was supposed to manage that, nobody knew. Least of all me.
And why was I even participating in this ridiculous scheme of hers? She knew better than anyone that I either had to be touching the person I was prophesying about, or have touched him at some point in the recent past.
But she was bound and determined to expand my skills, to widen my periphery so I could have visions on the fly. So far, our attempts with the mirror thing had yielded exactly squat. Unless I was touching said fly, nothing happened.
Kind of like now.
After a solid twelve seconds, I gave up. “You know, it would help if I knew what to concentrate on.”
Brooke patted my arm absently, staring into her phone. “Concentrate on concentrating.”
For the love of Starbucks, what the heck did that mean?
I lifted the mirror again. Shook it a little to make sure it was working. Held it at arm’s length. Squinted. Just as I was about to give up entirely, a vision, dark and alluring, materialized behind me. I sucked in a soft breath at the sight even though, admittedly, there was nothing prophetic about it.
Jared Kovach was standing against the wall of the building we’d just left. Watching me. At least he had been until he saw me notice him in the mirror. He turned away the moment our eyes made contact, and the pain that shot through me was quick and unforgiving.
I snapped the compact closed and handed it back to Brooke. “I think it’s broken.”
From my periphery, I noticed Jared start our way, and my stomach clenched in agony. I wanted to run. Instead, I stopped and turned to him. Mostly because he could outrun me. He was wearing his requisite jeans that fit low on his hips and a gray T-shirt with a brown bomber jacket thrown over his shoulder. The cloudy day had splashed color across the sky behind him, and hints of oranges, pinks, and purples served as a backdrop to the powerful set of his shoulders, the lean hills and valleys of his arms. Somehow I didn’t think that a coincidence. But his exquisite form only drove home the fact that he was so far out of my league, it was unreal.
He’d come to Riley’s Switch a couple of months ago to do a job. That job was to pop in, take me a few minutes before I was slated to die anyway, then pop back out again. But he’d disobeyed his orders. He’d saved me instead, thus breaking one of the three rules that celestial beings are bound by. Even the powerful Angel of Death. As a result, he was stuck on Earth. Stuck helping me.
The problem was, I fell in love with him. It was hard not to. And he really liked me, if his mouth pressed against mine every chance it got was any indication. But that made my grandparents nervous. They went behind my back and asked him to keep his distance, so keep his distance he had. Out of respect for their wishes and because he couldn’t argue their point, he gave his word that he would act only in the capacity of protector and guardian where I was concerned. Nothing more. Nothing less.
And my heart shattered into a million tiny pieces.
My grandparents and I had been so close. For ten years they, along with Brooke and Glitch, were my world. But now all the communication in our house was strained and full of hurtful innuendo and resentful glances.
“He’s the Angel of Death,” my grandmother would say. “The most powerful angel in the heavens.”
Then my grandfather would join in. “He’s not a teenaged boy, despite his appearance, pix. He’s dangerous beyond your wildest imagining.”
The fact that he’d saved my life—twice!—apparently didn’t matter.
As he got closer, I tried to subdue the adrenaline rush I felt every time I looked at him. His dark hair fell over his forehead, emphasizing the sparkling depths of his coffee-colored eyes. The wind molded the T-shirt to the expanse of his chest, revealing the fact that he was cut to simple perfection. And he had this way of moving, this animalistic grace, that mesmerized even the stoutest minds.
“How was your last class?” he asked, stopping in front of me but avoiding my gaze. His voice, deep and smooth like warm caramel, caused a fluttering deep inside me, a flood of heat to my face. How could any being, supernatural or otherwise, be so perfect?
“Pretty boring,” I said, pretending to be as uninterested as he. I hoped and prayed he couldn’t feel the pain his presence caused. The humiliation would be too much.
He nodded and looked into the forest behind the school. I couldn’t help a quick glance at his arms. The bands of symbols that lined his biceps were visible underneath the edges of his sleeves. The designs were ancient and meaningful, symbols that stated his name, rank, and serial number in a celestial language. Or that was my impression. I loved looking at them. Thick dark lines that twisted into curves and angles. A single line of them wrapping around each arm. To me, they looked like a combination of Native American pictography and something alien, something otherworldly.
“Are you okay?” he asked, still looking toward the tree line.
“Me?” I pretended to be surprised. It was his job to check up on me. It didn’t mean anything. “I’m great.”
“We’re both great,” Brooklyn said. She put her phone away and draped an arm over my shoulders. “And we have to get to class.”
She offered Jared a hard glare, and I felt bad for him. He was only obeying my grandparents’ wishes. He watched us leave, his face expressionless, and it was hard to look away from the dark brown depths of his eyes shimmering beneath his thick black lashes, or the full mouth that had been pressed to mine on several of my more memorable occasions.
With a heavy sigh, I turned back toward the gym. Still, a person would have to be blind not to notice all the attention Jared drew every time he made an appearance. And I couldn’t help but notice that when he headed back to the main building, more than one girl at Riley High stopped to watch.
* * *
Sadly, PE was going to require effort. We were ordered to run the Path, which was a footpath in the forest behind the gym. Fun for some, life threatening for others. I was about as coordinated as overcooked spaghetti. This was not going to end well.
But even the pain and sweat of the Path couldn’t take my mind off the enigma that was Jared Kovach. Ever since he arrived in Riley’s Switch, he’d been kind of undercover as a student. Partly because we didn’t really know what else to do with him without drawing unwanted attention, but mostly because he had to stay close to me, to keep me safe. My status as a supposed war stopper carried enough weight to warrant a guardianship by way of the most powerful angel from heaven.
But my arrival onto this plane also warranted a protector of another kind. The angels had created a nephilim—a part-human, part-angel boy named Cameron—sent to protect me long before Jared arrived. And he was normally right on our heels. Part of that could be explained by his crush on Brooke. But he took his job very seriously and had hardly let me out of his sight. I scanned the area, wondering where he was. I hadn’t seen him in days, and after having him as a constant shadow every minute for the last two months, I found his absence a little disconcerting.
I thought about Jared. They hadn’t exactly been the best of friends. In fact, they’d torn a goodly portion of downtown Riley’s Switch to shreds soon after Jared first arrived. Could he and Cameron have fought again? I should have touched Jared when I had the chance, tried to see what he’d been up to. Not that I could control the visions in any way, shape, or form, but if he’d fought with Cameron, it was emotional enough that it could show up. And I swore to all things holy, if Jared and Cameron were fighting again, there would be heck to pay in the way of very sore shins.
“How are you supposed to practice if we keep having to work in all of our classes?” Brooklyn asked as we jogged along the forest floor, dodging tree branches and navigating the uneven ground. We’d had a dry winter, and leaves crunched under our feet as we did our best to stay vertical. This could not be in compliance with the safety guidelines set forth by the state.
“It’s crazy, right?” I asked her, my huffing breaths only slightly wheezy. “To expect such a thing from an establishment of learning.” I checked the pocket in my hoodie to make sure I’d remembered my inhaler. Nothing screamed unattractive like a face bluing from lack of oxygen.
I had a feeling Brooklyn reveled in my prophetic status. She talked about it all the time and urged me to practice. To concentrate. To concentrate harder, darn it. Of course, she’d seen almost as much as I had when Jared came to town. She now knew there were things that went bump in the night. They were real and they were scary and they’d almost gotten us killed, so I couldn’t really blame her for her obsession. Though I could complain about it every single chance I got.
He’s still crazy about you, you know?”
I was busy concentrating on supplying my red blood cells with oxygen when Brooke spoke again. Depriving my cells, I asked, “What?”
She shrugged, her long dark ponytail flopping over her shoulders. Her dark skin almost shimmered when rays of light would find their way to us. She was stunning. I was white. Chalk had more color than I did. And quite possibly more personality.
“Jared,” she continued.
I had to think to put her phrases into one complete thought; then I frowned at her. “If Jared were still crazy about me,” I said between huffs of air, “he wouldn’t have given in so easily to my grandparents’ demands.”
“How do you know? Maybe he’s just an honorable guy. He’s old school in so many ways. Like really, really old school. Like the beginning of time old school.” When I didn’t respond, she added, “He looks at you every chance he gets.”
I skidded to a stop, and a girl behind us slammed into me.
“Watch it, McAlister,” she said, pushing past me. I fell forward and caught myself against a tree trunk.
Brooke jumped to my defense, squaring her shoulders and jamming her hands onto her hips. “You watch it, Tabitha.”
“Please,” she said as three other girls ran past. “Like you could take me on your best day.”
Tabitha, also known as my archnemesis, just happened to be about seven feet tall to Brooke’s five. She smirked and continued her trek through the forest, her blond head bobbing up and down.
Brooke came to my rescue, offering a hand to steady me as I brushed leaves off my shorts. “How rude.”
“When is she not rude?” It was a sad twist of fate that Tabitha had PE with me, the person she most despised and most loved to humiliate. “But I did stop in the middle of the path.”
“Why? Did you have a vision?” she asked, her eyes glimmering with optimism.
“No, you’ve gone mad and I think we should seek help.”
She chuckled. “Jared does look at you. Every chance he gets. But not in a stalkery way. More like a pining way, like he misses you.”
I clasped my hands behind my head and breathed deep to slow my heart rate. “Brooke, he never looks at me. The minute I look at him, he turns away.”
“Exactly, because he was freaking looking at you in the first place. He has no choice but to turn away or get busted like twelve thousand times a day.”
Her words, insane as they were, gave me a spark of hope. Then reality sank in. “He’s looking at me because that’s his job. To protect me, the great prophet Lorelei.”
She snorted. “Yeah, keep telling yourself that.”
But something in the distance had captured my attention. I squinted past the line of trees. “What is that?”
She scanned the area. “Are you changing the subject on purpose?”
When I pointed deeper into the forest, we both leaned forward and strained for a better look. Two girls walked past, clearly having given up on the whole jogging thing. I was right there with them.
“Well,” Brooke said, “I don’t see anything, but the way this day has been going, maybe we should get back to the gym, just to be safe.”
But I had seen something. An outline. A shape that resembled a head peering from behind a tree about thirty yards away. I stepped closer as a ray of light glinted off a blade. A silver blade.
Before I could comment, something moved inside me. A ripple of displeasure. A quake of something dark and dangerous. Every molecule in my body came alive as I looked at that blade. At the sun glistening off it in the shadowy forest.
“Don’t you think?” Brooke asked.
I eased my hand around her arm and stepped back onto the path.
“What?” She looked into the forest again and caught on. In a hushed whisper, she said, “I still don’t see anything.”
“I do.” When the shape emerged from behind the tree, hunched down like a wild animal, I squeezed her arm tighter and whispered, “Run.”
Copyright © 2013 by Darynda Jones