Cursed - Page 24

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I had to lean forward to see what he held. Something small and round rested in his palm. Instinctively, I knew it was the coin. “Oh. It must have fallen out of my pocket.”

He peered up through his lashes. “I can’t make out what’s on it.”

“Nothing’s really on it,” I said, wishing I could take it out of his palm. “Can I have it back?” I held out my hand.

“Sure, but why do you have a coin in your pocket? I can tell it’s not a normal one.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s kind of like a good luck charm.”

Hayden dropped it back in my hand. I could hear the smile in his voice. “Then you don’t want to lose it.”

“No.” I put it back in my pocket and hoped it stayed there.

After that, we lapsed into silence for a while. Then I heard the soft, even breaths signaling that Hayden had fallen sleep. I envied him. My mind didn’t want to shut down. At some point, I rolled onto my side and rose up on my elbow. I don’t know what provoked me, but I studied him. I noticed things I hadn’t before, like how thick his lashes were and how his brows seemed to have a natural arch in the middle. My fingers itched to draw the curve of his cheek, the line of his jaw. My gaze drifted down, over his parted lips, then further. His hands rested over his flat stomach. I found it strange that those long, elegant fingers held the power to hurt me.

Inspecting my own hands, I wandered if he ever looked at mine and thought the same thing. Though, my fingers weren’t nearly as elegant as his. They always seemed stained with pencil marks, sometimes charcoal.

And my fingers killed—all because of Olivia’s gift, all because someone had wanted her gift.

Slowly, I curled onto my side and watched the soft rise and fall of Hayden’s chest until my eyes drifted shut. I fell into a deep sleep, the kind dreams couldn’t even penetrate.

* * *

Mom looked different to me now—the thick locks of red hair didn’t seem so dull, her face not so pale. Even the way she hummed didn’t bother me like it used to.

I placed a mug of hot tea on the stand next to where she sat and backed off a step or two.

“Mom, I understand.”

She continued to rock slowly.

“I know we fought a lot before the accident, but I always loved you. Did you know that? I probably didn’t act like I did. I was just so stupid, and I wish you could really hear me now. I’m sorry for how I acted. I’m sorry for picking seafood that night, and… and I’m sorry for hating you this whole time.”

I stopped and closed my eyes. The need to wait for a response evaporated in the silence between us. During the walk back to the house this morning, Hayden had explained that mind-wiping had to be done with a certain amount of finesse. “Like a fine art,” he’d said. Done wrong, the consequences were terrible and the damage was almost always permanent.

Anger and a sense of helplessness rose. Mom hadn’t deserved this. My nails dug into my palms.

“I know what happened to you.” I said. “I know there’s nothing we can do to change it, but I’m gonna make it right somehow. When I find out who did this, I’m gonna make them pay for this. I’ll—”

Floorboards in the hallway creaked once, then twice. I whirled to the door, clamping my mouth shut. Crossing the distance, I peered out into the empty hallway. Not knowing if someone had overheard what I’d said, I pushed back from the door and turned toward Mom. My heart stopped.

She looked straight at me, her eyes unnaturally wide, the green hue surprisingly bright.

“Mom?”

Then I realized she wasn’t looking at me, but behind me—toward the door, like she’d also heard someone in the hallway.

Chapter 16

Self-reflection was like preparing for the SAT. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I had to. And when I did, it was going to suck butt—majorly. It was also going to take awhile—mine took two weeks and a couple of days.

I guess I had Holden Caulfield to thank for it.

Mr. Theo sat on the edge of his desk, Catcher in the Rye in his hands. He went on and on about how Holden had alienated himself as a form of self-protection, which led to his loneliness. And then something about loneliness being a form of security.

Whatever. At least Holden had had a choice in becoming an outcast.

But I had an epiphany while Mr. Theo’s smooth voice read a line from the book. “‘The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move…. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.’”

Mr. Theo cracked the book shut and peered at the class; his bright gaze seemed to zero in on me. “What does that mean to you?”

“The kid needed to get laid,” Billy answered.

I ignored the laughter and Mr. Theo’s response. I was way too focused on the fact I didn’t want to be one of those statues in the museums—never moving, never changing—to forever be the girl who couldn’t even touch a plant. I wanted to change—needed to change, but after two weeks of massacring every plant I’d touched, things weren’t working.

Every evening, Hayden and I snuck off to the cabin and started with the plants. Afterwards, we sat on the couch and talked about anything. Sometimes we lay on the bed. On those nights, we usually fell asleep, and then snuck back into the house at the crack of dawn, praying we wouldn’t get caught.

But maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. Maybe I was going along with the training so I could spend time with Hayden, because I liked falling asleep next to him. I liked being that close to someone.

The shrill sound of the bell startled me, and I almost fell out of my seat. Students shot to their feet, blinking away the dazed looks on their faces.

Mr. Theo dropped the book on the desk. “Ember, can you hold on a sec?”

Not entirely surprised by his request, I ignored the several “oohs” and shoved my book into my bag. Mr. Theo liked to check in every so often. I think he still felt bad over the dead rabbit.

He nodded at the last lingering student as he came around his desk. Once the room was clear, he smiled at me. “Anything going on?”

“No,” I lied, immediately feeling like crap for doing so. I let out a sigh and dropped into one of the seats up front. “Well, there was a smashed-up doll shoved in my locker yesterday.” I left out the noose I’d found the Monday after Homecoming. Mr. Theo already knew about that since he’d asked me to stay after class that day, too. For some reason, he’d looked surprised to see me in class that day, probably because I’d developed a nasty cold.

Hayden didn’t know about either thing I’d found in my locker. I’d hidden them so he wouldn’t blow up the entire school.

Mr. Theo shook his head. “Ember, I really think you need to speak to the principal. I’ve told you before, the faculty here does not accept bullying.”

And I’d told him before that I didn’t want to involve anyone else. I was about to say it again, when out of nowhere, I felt lightheaded. “How is your home life?”

“It’s… been okay.” My head swirled a bit. I hadn’t eaten breakfast this morning—bad choice. “Why… why are you asking?”

He folded his arms, looking uncomfortable. “I know I’m only your teacher, but I moved around a lot when I was your age. I know how hard it is to make friends with kids and to live with strangers.”

“You do?” The lights seemed incredibly bright.

“My mother was very sick when I was growing up. We moved in with a lot of different relatives and friends of the family I didn’t know well. I remembered the other kids not being very friendly, pulling pranks.” He took off his glasses, fiddling with them. “If it’s one of them doing this, you need to tell someone.”

I nodded slowly, and the truth—or what I believed to be the truth—was right there, on the tip of my tongue. I wanted to tell him everything, because maybe—just maybe—he would believe me.

“Ember?”

I snapped out of it. What would happen if I told Mr. Theo the truth? He’d either think I was crazy or he’d call the authorities. I doubted Cromwell would respond well to that. Look at what’d happened to Adam. I stood, swaying against the desk. “Everyone at home is great. I don’t think it’s one of them. Anyway, I’m going to be late.”

A frown pulled at his lips. He slipped his glasses back on and nodded.

Guilt made me feel even worse. Besides Hayden, Mr. Theo seemed like the only other person who really cared. Maybe he felt obligated as my teacher, or perhaps he saw a little of himself in me; it didn’t matter what his reasons were. I felt terrible. “Thank you for the offer, really, but everything at home is fine.”

“No problem.” He turned back to his desk. “Just don’t forget you have people outside that house who can help you if you’re having problems, Ember.”

“Okay.” I nodded, knowing I’d never tell him I suspected that Cromwell or one of his gifted kids was behind the stuff in the locker… and possibly something far more terrible.

* * *

By the time I left fourth period and Cory’s never-ending talking, I’d forgotten about lying to Mr. Theo. Hayden waited by the door like he always did, and my stomach did a weird kind of shifting when my gaze settled on him—something I’d come to expect and be wary of. Today he wore this sweater… and it hugged his upper body like a second skin. With each move he made, the muscles stretched the cloth over his chest. Like now, when he reached up to brush his hair off his forehead.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Since I was eye-level with his chest I was, well, staring at his chest. And it didn’t take much for me to picture that chest naked. The image was forever branded in my memory.

Wow.

“Ember?”

I forced myself to look away. “Where are we eating?”

“Wherever you want.” He grabbed my bag and slung it over one broad shoulder.

I shoved my hands into my hoodie while we shuffled through the crowded hallway. “Anywhere but the rocks is fine with me.”

He gave me a sympathetic look. “Yeah. Yeah. How about the diner?”

“Sure.”

We headed into the cool November air without a single teacher stopping us. At the diner across the street, I picked a booth by the window so I could see the trees outside. Their leaves were an array of brown, yellow, and red.

So beautiful.

“You seem quiet.” Hayden commented after the waitress left our table. He’d ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with pickles. Gross. “It’s not because of last night, is it?”

I turned from the window, cringing. Last night I’d taken out an entire family of cacti during practice. Not the prickly kind, but the pretty ones that sprout flowers in November. “No. I’ve just been thinking.”

“About?”

Toying with the straw, I shrugged. “What did it take for you to gain control of your gift?”

Hayden rested his elbows on the table. “I had to figure out what caused it to happen when I didn’t want it to.”


Tags: Jennifer L. Armentrout Fantasy
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