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A Hellsbane Story
By Paige Cuccaro, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Paige Cuccaro
All rights reserved.
"There's something wrong with Justin."
"He's possessed," Mihir said.
"I'm serious." Worry had my heart racing fast and my tolerance for smartass remarks dangerously low.
Mihir sighed and swiveled his desk chair to face me. "Okay, then he's just a jackass. It's either one or the other."
The kid kinda had a crush on me. So he kinda hated Justin, my boyfriend. I mean, it was sweet. Mihir was a great guy ... but at fifteen, he was just a kid. We were friends—that's all. It seriously wasn't gonna happen. So we sort of silently agreed not to talk about it. It worked for us.
"Knock it off. I need someone to talk to about this, okay? I got a really weird feeling when I was with him last night. You know what I mean? Like I literally got a weird feeling."
I knew he understood. Mihir knew all about my weirdness of being able to feel other people's emotions like they're my own. It can be kind of awkward—not just knowing people's most intimate, private emotions, but feeling them. Growing up with this kind of freaky "gift" wasn't easy, especially on Friday nights—Mom and Dad's "date night."
The word ewww comes to mind.
Thank God that by nineteen, I'd learned to control it ... well, mostly. It ain't easy keeping your mental guard up twenty-four-seven. Slips happen, and then I learn way more than I ever wanted to know about the people around me.
Mihir was the only person I'd ever told about my ability. He'd been raised to believe in all kinds of woo-woo stuff, so I was just another kind of woo-woo to add to his list. It was nice having someone I could be myself with. But still, I just wanted to be normal, so most of the time I'd keep my mouth shut when I accidently felt someone's shame or embarrassment, acting just as clueless to their private suffering as everyone else. The closest I'd ever felt to normal was watching Lieutenant Troi on Next Generation—only what I experience has always been way more intense.
Mihir sat straighter. "Oh. You mean Justin felt really weird, and you picked up on it?"
Mihir had the brain of a rocket scientist and the background of a gypsy fortune-teller. Well, not gypsy exactly—Indian. Mihir's family was from India and his grandmother was some kind of spiritual medicine lady or something. She believed in all kinds of weird stuff like spirits, demons, and magic. She'd taught Mihir all she knew.
Personally, I didn't know what I believed. I mean, with a creepy ability like mine, it's hard to say none of the other crazy stuff exists. I'd never seen any hard evidence, not that I wanted to. Personally, if the disembodied voice in Amityville Horror told me to "get out," I'd go.
But Mihir believed all of it. He'd accepted me right off the bat, and even enjoyed the idea of my special brand of weirdness. The only downside was, like most teenage boys, he thought about sex every three or four minutes, and he knew I knew when he did. So now and then when I'd catch him staring at me, he'd turn beet red and everything he was thinking and feeling would be right there on his face—plain to see. He'd cover quickly though, hiding his embarrassment with a goofy grin and bobbing his brows like a horny little idiot. Thank goodness I'd learned to block him most of the time, like clenching a fist in my mind, squeezing off the flow of emotions.
How do guys function with that kind of stuff going through their heads twenty-four-seven?
Anyway, during his few minutes of free thought, Mihir was actually pretty cool. He was the one person in the world I could talk to about whatever might be going on with Justin, and be honest about how I knew. I couldn't have asked for a better confidante, though for Mihir I figured being friends with me must be like waking up in a cold sweat after dreaming you'd gone to school naked. Except he wasn't dreaming and he couldn't do anything to cover his exposed emotions. I did what I could, laughing with him, pretending it was no big deal, but it always made me a little queasy.
I'd give anything not to know exactly how he felt about me. Not just for myself, but for him. It seriously sucked sometimes.
He leaned forward, bracing his bony teenage elbows on his lap. "What'd you feel?"
"I was cold all of a sudden," I said. "And at first it felt kind of slimy, like sleazy-slimy. I don't know. It was just ... wrong. And really gross." I plopped onto the edge of Mihir's dorm room bed. The metal springs whined and creaked. Okay, so maybe I was still trying to shed the last of the freshman fifteen, but the beds at CUP, California University of Pennsylvania, are total crap.
"Maybe you're coming down with something. I've got a thermometer somewhere. I can practice my doctor skills on you." I could almost see his teenage libido twist his thoughts as his eyes darkened, his smile more lascivious than he intended. He shut it down quickly though, smile wilting, cheeks burning red. He looked away and mumbled, "Just kidding."
But a hot wave of lust swamped through me anyway, made my breath catch. It was his arousal warming inside me. Not mine. No way is it mine! But I had to concentrate not to let his feelings show on my face. Crap.
Blocking other people's emotions wasn't easy. Sometimes my brain got tired of holding the clench and stuff slipped through. I shoved Mihir's emotions away and thought harder to close that part of my brain.
I tried not to hold his one-track mind against him. At fifteen, Mihir was an off-the-charts genius but he still had the libido of, well, a fifteen-year-old boy. Wasn't his fault. He'd pretty much skipped high school and was now a junior in college, a year behind me. We understood each other. I'd skipped ahead two years, too.
After a few seconds, I had my wits about me again and flashed him a tired smile. "Thanks. I'm good."
We were friends. That's it. I was committed to Justin. Period.
Mihir shrugged and turned his pretty, coffee-brown eyes back to his computer screen. The kid had lashes like a llama, long and thick and coal black like his hair. If they could transplant eyelashes, some supermodel would've hunted and killed Mihir for them years ago. He had perpetually tanned skin, too, that made his teeth and the whites of his eyes gleam. In a few years, with about forty more pounds of muscle, the kid would be kryptonite to most girls' defenses.
I concentrated on refocusing his train of thought. "Last night, when I was with Justin, I got this feeling like there was something else in the room, or someone else. Like we were being watched. I dunno. I felt all ... god-like, y'know? Powerful. Like sleazy egomaniacally powerful. And really, really pissed off. I mean, like, seething with hate."
"And how is this different from any other time you've been with your jackass boyfriend?"
"Stop calling him that," I said. "Justin's a good guy—I think he's just going through something right now. I need to figure out what so I can help him. I'm worried it might be drugs."
Mihir glanced over his shoulder at me, a false look of surprise on his face. "What? The soccer star is doping? Say it ain't so!"
I huffed. "He's not doping. I meant recreational drugs. And for your information, all that muscle and amazing athletic ability is totally natural. Jealous?"
Mihir made a disgusted noise and turned back to his computer. "Maybe you picked up on him thinking about the webcam he's got hidden in his closet to film the two of you." He jabbed a few keys on the keyboard, then shifted his hand to the mouse. He was jealous, and I didn't even need my abilities to know it.
A twinge of guilt softened my tone. "Stop that. Justin doesn't film us."
He chuckled to himself. "Yeah. Okay."
Of course I'd still check the closet on my next visit just to be sure. "Seriously, Mihir, I'm worried about him. If he's messing around with drugs, he could lose everything."
"Even you?" Mihir asked without looking at me.
I thought for a minute. "If he won't stop, yeah. You don't know what I felt with him last night. It was dark and ... evil. He hated me—hated everything. Whatever he's taking is ... it's changing him."
"Why are you so sure it was Justin?"
I gave a sarcastic snort. "Um, 'cause we were the only two people in the room. My ability might be getting stronger, but so far it can't go through walls. Who else could it have been?"
Mihir swiveled his chair around to look at me. "Have you seen any evidence? Y'know, drugs lying around, paraphernalia, any physical signs on him?"
"There's a lot of stuff out there, and your boy-toy isn't the sharpest tool in the shed. So it's hard to know what he might have eaten, snorted, or shot up his ass," Mihir said, leaning back, one arm hiked over the back of his chair. "But as far as I've heard, nothing makes you feel slimy or sleazy. God-like and powerful, yes. Hating the people you love—or lust? Whatever. Doesn't sound like the kind of trip that'd make a drug worth taking."
"If it's not drugs, then what?" I asked. "This wasn't Justin. I mean, I know he's not your favorite person, but he's not like this. Justin doesn't ... hate anyone."
Mihir shrugged. "Like I said, he's possessed."
I sighed. "Damn it, Mihir ..."
"I'm being serious." He leaned forward. "I'd have to go to his room to be sure, but it's possible even a mentally challenged Neanderthal like Justin could have stumbled onto a charmed item or an incantation. Plenty of species are easy enough for even him to call. Besides, supernatural types are always happy to crunch on some stupid frat boy's soul."
"Supernatural? Really?" I shook my head, trying not to laugh. "That kind of thing isn't—"
"It is," he said. "Emma, it's real. And one day you're going to have to face it. I mean ... Shit. You're living proof the supernatural exists. How can you sit there and deny it?"
I stopped laughing. I didn't know why I was the way I was, and thinking about it scared the hell out of me. I slumped back against the wall, twirling the drawstrings of Justin's fraternity hoodie between my fingers. "The Kappa Os won't allow you on the porch, let alone inside Justin's room."
"Asses," Mihir muttered.
He was right, but I didn't say anything. "You know any Hindu-Muslim-Ancient-Egyptian mumbo-jumbo I can do to find out on my own?"
He slanted those pretty brown eyes at me. "Emma Jane, I'm an Episcopalian."
I hated when he used my whole name and he knew it. Too many rude limericks growing up.
"So?" I said, annoyed by his smart/dumb guy act. Mihir majored in pre-med, but thanks to his grandmother's influence, he was also carrying a minor in Near Eastern Religions. He took classes on stuff like biblical archaeology, the comparative religions of the ancient Near East, Mesopotamian mythology, and a bunch of other stuff with titles too complicated to remember. The boy was obsessed with all things creepy and hard to explain.
He exhaled through his nose, making his nostrils flare. His forehead wrinkled, then he turned back to the computer. "Salt."
"Supernaturals don't like salt. It's a known fact," he said, typing as he talked. The kid had skills. "Next time you go over to the frat-sty, sprinkle salt around. If there's something otherworldly being held there, you'll know it."
"Seriously? I'm supposed to throw salt all over the place? They'll think I'm nuts."
"What, it's a secret?" His quiet snicker shook his shoulders.
He sobered. "Not all over the place, Einstein. Sprinkle it on things. Stuff that could hold a spirit: boxes, cups, bowls, books, anything old."
"Salt." I tried to picture myself tip-toeing around the Kappa Omega fraternity house with one of the plastic salt shakers the guys had swiped from Mickey D's.
Oh, this was so not going to be fun.
"Sea salt," Mihir said, head down, fingers flying over his keyboard, "works better."
"Right." Of course it does. "What are you doing with all that typing and clicking?"
"No you're not. Tell me you are not hacked into the school's computer." I sat up straight, swallowing hard against my suddenly dry throat. I knew computer hacking was the pastime of most hormone-crazed kids these days, but walking on the wrong side of the law, virtually or not, gave me the willies.
He glanced over his shoulder at me, looking very young and mischievous. Then he winked and turned back to the computer. "Relax, Emma, they can't trace me. I'm too good. Besides, I'm just fixing what some other numb-nut screwed up. At the rate those IT dips the school hired are moving, they won't isolate the virus till next year. I'll have it fixed in another hour or two tops."
"Virus? Is that what made everyone's grades show as Fs?"
"Oh. Well then, carry on." I pushed to my feet and took the three steps to the other side of the dorm room to stand behind his desk chair. "The dean said he'd postpone commencement next week until they can figure out which students really failed and which were just hacked. That would definitely suck. My family's way too psyched about coming. Telling them the thing's postponed would be ... scary."
"You know it. My parents almost had a cow over the grades. I told them the Fs weren't real, but they're paranoid it'll somehow keep me from getting into med school. Boo-hoo. Right?"
Mihir didn't really want to be a doctor. He wanted to be Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like I said ... he's fifteen.
Mihir swung his gaze up to me, wagged his brows. "Hey, while I'm in here, what'll ya give me for an A in advanced physics?"
"Hey, there's nothing wrong with that B. I earned it." Okay, it was a B minus, but it was all mine. I hated math, and just because I'd skipped some grades in high school didn't make college courses cake for me.
I reached over and mussed his hair, then left to begin my search for sea salt ... and sleazy hidden spirits.
This was insane.CHAPTER 2
My stomach dropped suddenly, like cresting a hill on a roller coaster, as I leaned down to give Justin a kiss. I was used to the sensation. It happened every time I saw him—especially when we got close enough to kiss. It's how I knew I loved him.
I figured my body had better instincts than my brain, and it knew that he was the one. I'd only ever felt the same sensation once before, but that was back in high school with a boy who hardly knew I existed. This time it was real love.
Justin's lips pressed against mine, soft and needy. Instantly the feeling in my belly warmed and a riot of butterflies scrambled into flight. After three and a half months, his kisses still made me melt.
"Hey, sweetie," he said and scooted over so I could sit next to him in the booth. His arm slid across my shoulders, hugging me close, and the scent of his cologne triggered memories of his body naked next to mine. I met his eyes and could almost see the same memories heating through his sultry gaze.
Justin was my first. After I'd gotten over the initial shock of what we'd done, I seriously could not be near him without wanting more. Who could blame me? The man was like a Greek god, with his golden hair and rippling muscles. Okay, technically, he was a soccer player ... same thing. He had the best body, a dimpled smile, and eyes the color of a summer sky. Yum.
Heat flamed through my cheeks as his hand slipped over my thigh under the table. I stopped him from pressing his fingers between my legs, but the idea sent a naughty thrill wiggling through my chest.
I exhaled in a shaky rush of air. "Hey," I answered him, beaming, then looked up as his mother and little sister arrived, taking their seats across the table. I hurried to blink away the intimate thoughts from my expression and smiled. "Hi, Mrs. Montgomery. Hi, Amy."
Justin squeezed my leg, chuckling, and we settled in next to each other for what had become our regular monthly lunch with his family. They only lived an hour away, but his father rarely made the trip; his work kept him too busy.
My dad had passed away five years ago, but my mother and sister still made the two-hour trip to visit when they could. Most times, it was just my mom. My older sister, Lacey, had a good excuse, though—two of them, actually. My niece, Katie, and her little brother, Ricky, seemed to always have doctor's appointments or some kindergarten or preschool activities. I missed them like crazy, but visiting with Justin's family helped.
Excerpted from Commencement by Paige Cuccaro, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2012 Paige Cuccaro. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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