“J-just a dream?”
Right when I was about to yank off the sheet to examine my legs and feet, I heard footsteps clipping down the hall.
I dropped back, closing my eyes an instant before my mother entered. Without even a courtesy knock. “Evie, are you up?” Light flooded in from the hallway.
“Mom?” I said, trying to sound sleepy as I took a frantic mental inventory of my body. Were my feet bleeding, my legs? Was I covered in dirt? Had my fingernails returned to normal?
But all I felt was numbness, as if my entire body were immersed in Novocain.
“I thought I heard you cry out.” Her tone had that alarmed edge to it. Sherlock senses crazy. . . .
“Huh? I must have been dreaming.”
Still dressed for the day, she sat at the end of my bed, her diamond studs flashing. “Your face is so pale. Are you coming down with something?”
“Nope. Not me.” Oh, God, if there was blood on my legs, would it soak through my sheet? If my mom saw those parallel slices, she would probably think I was a closet cutter, like my former roommate at the center.
“I’m worried about you,” she said. “We need to talk about how you’re doing now that you’re back at home.”
“Mom, I told you, everything’s fine.” My legs were bleeding.
Another furtive adjustment of the sheet. Three stripes of crimson were soaking through. She’ll see, she’ll see. . . .
Adjust the sheet, overlap it. There. Better.
“You’ve been back for nearly two weeks, but I haven’t heard you laugh a single time. You always used to joke around, just like your dad.” Her brows drew together. “Evie, what’s . . .” She laid the back of her hand against my damp forehead. “Are you trembling?” She wrapped her arms around me, rocking me. “Baby, I’m here. What’s wrong?”
What’s right? I’d doubled up on my meds tonight—and I was now worse off. “I-I think I just had a bad dream.”
She drew back. “A hallucination?”
“No! I was sound asleep.”
“Honey, just tell me, and I will make this better.”
You didn’t last time. The cure didn’t take! Yet I was so freaked out, I was tempted to reveal all once more.
Instead, I dug deep, resolved to make a stand. I met her gaze, steadying my tone. “I will tell you when I need your help.”
She was taken aback by my demeanor. “Oh.” Because, for a brief moment, I’d sounded just as steely as she usually did. “Um, okay.”
“I’ve got a big day tomorrow. And I’ve really got to get some sleep.” I’m already going to be up for hours, convincing myself that I dreamed those claws.
Mom rose, her gaze wary, almost startled. “Of course. Uh, sweet dreams, honey.”
Once the door closed behind her, I yanked the sheet away, grimacing in advance at what I’d see.
The skin on my thighs was crusting with blood, but my feet were clean and free from gashes.
Maybe I’d just cut myself with my fingernails in sleep. I wanted to latch on to this reasoning, to ignore how realistic Death’s visit had been.
When I recalled his armor, my fingers itched to render his likeness. I reached under my mattress, dragging out my drawing journal.
Pencil flying over the paper, I whispered repeatedly, “Two years and out, two years and out.” A tear dropped onto the page, then another and another—three blurred spots over Death’s otherworldly image.
By the time I’d finished the drawing, the storm pressure was ebbing. No rain for our crops tonight.
And because I was insane, I ached with them.
I gazed down at one of my legs, convinced that I’d merely cut myself during my nightmare. With a curse, I flicked the crusted blood away.
The skin beneath it was . . . unmarked.
DAY 2 B.F.
I spent my free period on Friday in Eden Courtyard, sitting at the tiled cement table, licking my wounds in private.
On the verge of tears, I tried to ignore the fact that a bed of daisies had turned their faces toward me—instead of the direction of the sun.
At least the roses and ivy were still.
Last night, before I’d gone to sleep—the first time—I’d wondered, What are the odds that I’ll have a pop quiz?
I hadn’t had one today.
I’d had two. And just to add insult to injury? When we’d handed our English quizzes up the row, Jackson’s paper had all the answers, scribbled in bold handwriting.
Though I’d never before gotten below a B+ on anything, I’d accumulated two Fs this week. At the thought, my eyes welled with tears. I laid my flushed face against the cool stone, struggling not to cry.
Today when I’d asked my teachers for makeups . . .
Bitches said no.
My stomach churned. A drop in grades. I couldn’t go back to CLC, would never go back.
I had to wonder where the bottom was for this. What was that SAT word for the absolute rock bottom? The nadir. Where was my nadir?
How much more could I fail/lose/hallucinate/unravel? After last night’s date with Death, I might’ve thought that I’d get a time-out from creepy. Not so!
Once we’d finished that quiz in English, I’d fallen asleep, dreaming again of the red witch. I began sketching her now. Naturally, she’d been fresh from a kill. Her vines had been smearing the blood of her victims over her skin; she enjoyed wearing it.
I’d been able to see more of her than ever before. Her pale face was round, her skin marred only by those two shimmering tattoos running the length of her cheeks. No, not tattoos, but glyphs—like glowing green brands. Though she had girlish freckles across her nose, she looked older, maybe midtwenties? Her eyes were gleaming green, pure evil.
I’d watched as she’d advanced on a magnificent rosebush, stabbing her thorn claws into one of its stalks. Somehow she’d leeched energy from it, siphoning its life into herself as she’d thrown back her head and shrieked with pleasure.
The plant writhed, as if in death throes, but she was merciless, sucking it dry, leaving it a withered husk. She was like a parasite, enslaving the very things I loved.
When I’d jerked awake, everyone had been packing up their books—except for Jackson.
Then I’d realized he hadn’t been looking at my face, but at my hands, at my knuckles gone white as I clenched the edges of my desk. I’d released my hold at once.
“Nightmare?” he’d asked with a nod.
Had he seemed sympathetic? Unable to help myself, I asked, “Do you . . . do you have them?”
“Yeah.” He’d sounded like he was about to say more, only to remember we weren’t friends. He’d just repeated, “Yeah.”
“What do you do?”
“I sleep with one eye open.” He’d taken a pull from his flask and strode away.
I’d be happy just to sleep at all.
My phone chimed with a text from Brandon. If this was more pressure, I was going to primal-scream.
Kick-back on Sat. 4 couples. Ur friends & mine. Spence & Mel
He’d come through with Spencer? Finally something positive! I seized on this, excitedly texting: Where?
I frowned. On the back, back, back forty of Haven there was a crumbling mill on the banks of the bayou. It was so old, only the brick walls and a smokestack remained. There was no glass in the porthole windows, so it kind of looked like an old Roman coliseum.
If folks thought Haven might be haunted, they were convinced the mill was. Rumors of gory deaths inside the cane crushers abounded.
But thinking of Mel, I knew I would agree to go—
“And you Sterling girls make fun of Clotile for wearing short skirts?” Jackson said, striding across the courtyard, raking his gaze over me in my cheer uniform.
I hastily closed my journal, putting it with my other books.
“Um, um, UM, Evie. Just seeing you in that getup makes me feel more . . . cheerful.”
When I’d walked into homeroom this morning, he’d taken one look at me and smirked over the rim of his flask. He’d accused me of being like a doll. As I’d gotten ready for school, putting on my bright-red skirt and V-neck vest, with an oversize hair ribbon to match, I’d kind of felt like one.
Over my shoulder, he said in a goading voice, “Je t’aime en rose.” I like you in pink. Then he sat uninvited beside me.
Huh? I wasn’t wearing anything pink. Nothing but my bra—
He’d been looking over my shoulder, straight down my top! Did he have no boundaries?
And I couldn’t say anything about it, or else I’d lose our battle of wills. I didn’t need this! But I refused to leave my table, to give in to this bully.
“Tell me how you learned our tongue,” he said, sounding . . . not irate.
“Once again, I don’t understand that ridiculous gibberish you keep murmuring. And more, I’m done talking about it.” I began to text my answer to Brand.
“You typing to that beau of yours?” Again Jackson got that frustrated look on his face. His moods were so changeable.
“He doan want to fight me after I called you a bitch?”
Sounds goo— My thumbs paused on my keyboard.
“Of course, I said that in French,” Jackson continued. “But now I’ve had to go back and think of anything else you might’ve understood.”
I tried to keep my expression neutral. “Whatever. All I know is that Brandon won’t fight you.”
“Because he knows I’ll hand him his ass.” Jackson gave me a mean smile.
“No, because he actually has something to lose by fighting.”
Jackson didn’t like that comment at all. His gray eyes blazed.
I realized where I’d seen that color before. On my bedroom wall.
Those ominous clouds in my mural, the ones aglow with lightning . . . that gray was the color of Jackson’s eyes when he was angry.
“You think you and Radcliffe and all your stuck-up friends are so much better than everybody else.” His fists clenched, his hands swelling. Tape ripped on one, revealing a deep gash across his fingers. All around it, grisly scar tissue had formed.
Our fight forgotten, I cried, “What happened to your hand?”
With a cruel look in his eyes, he pinched my chin and eased his other fist toward my face like he was throwing a punch in slow motion. “The teeth,” he sneered, baring his own. “They cut like a saw blade.”
He’d been in so many fights, he had scars growing over scars. I jerked back from him with a gasp, and he dropped his hands, his expression suddenly unreadable.
But I’d received the message loud and clear. This boy was dangerous. I turned away, finishing my text.
Jackson snagged my sketchbook, shooting to his feet, putting distance between me and his new prize.
As I scrambled from my seat, he opened the journal, frowning as he tilted a page to a different angle.
“Give it back, Jackson!”
“Ah-ah, bébé.” He held it above my head, walking backward, taunting me with it. “Just let ole Jack see.”
“I want it back—NOW!”
Suddenly he staggered, barely righting himself before he fell. The journal flew out of his grasp, landing on the ground.
I darted forward and scooped it up. “The bigger they are!” I snapped at him.
Lucky for me he’d tripped. Maybe he’d backed over the monkey grass.
My lips parted. Strands of it were still coiled tight around his ankles, dropping to the ground one by one.
Behind him that line of green was rippling, though there was no breeze. Jackson didn’t seem to know why he’d tripped, but I did.
Those strands had shot out and bound his ankles. The plants were interacting with another person?
Plant movement had been my crazy—confined to my reactions, my confusion. I’d found it utterly terrifying to see.
But were they helping me? Like last night, when the cane had caged me in protectively?
Now the monkey grass had nearly felled my foe, saving my sketchbook.
I started to laugh. Helped a girl out, did you?
Jackson again thought I was laughing at him. A flush spread over those chiseled cheekbones of his. He straightened to his full height, gave me a threatening scowl, then stalked off.
Once he was gone, I knelt in front of the grass, wanting to fan my fingers over it, but still too scared to. I stared at the daisies, then the roses.
Because I was round the bend again, I could ask myself some truly bizarre questions.
What did the monkey grass want in return for helping me? Did the ivy have an agenda? Roses: friend or foe?
One way or another, I needed to figure out what was happening to me.
I decided that once I got home, where no one could see me, I was going to test out the cane.
When Brand dropped me off at my house after school, he parked out of view of the kitchen window. “Is everything all right, Eves?” He drummed his fingers on the stick shift. “You’ve been acting weird ever since you got back.”
“Everything’s fine,” I said, impatient to get to our field.
“Good deal,” he said simply, taking me at my word, though my demeanor screamed, Everything’s futhermucked!
He rested his hand on my thigh, high enough to make me frown up at him. He had a smile on his face, but it was strained. He traced circles above my knee.
“So have you thought about us going to Spencer’s next weekend?”
“Probably not as much as you have.”
“My brain’s on shuffle,” he said, tapping his temple. “Evie, football, Evie, football.”
“At least I come first.”
“Always,” he said easily, flashing me his movie-star grin.
“I’ll tell you my answer sometime this weekend, I promise.” Giving myself less than forty-eight hours to decide?
Once he’d driven off to get ready for the game tonight, I headed toward the cane before I lost my nerve. I was determined to get to the bottom of this. Two equally catastrophic results awaited me. Either I was delusional. Or . . .