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Sometime in the near future...
Sometime in the near future...
I'd always loved the night, where anything could happen and everything usually did. The forbidden...the unexpected...the bad. Nothing seemed real in the ethereal light of the moon. Sins were easily forgiven. Why not play? everyone thought -- I had once thought. Why not enjoy?
At the moment, loud, gyrating music pounded through the darkness, vibrating with so much force the ground shook and the trees swayed. In the center of a forest clearing, my friends danced around a blazing fire, and in the flickering gold and shadows their hands were everywhere. Their mouths were kissing hungrily, their bodies moved to the rhythm of the rock, fast and erratic. Sexual.
Those who weren't dancing were lounging against the circling trees, drinking beer, laughing, and smoking Onadyn, or "Snow Angels," as we called the cigs -- the drug of choice for humans nowadays. It was a deoxygenating drug meant only for the aliens who had invaded our planet so many years ago. A deoxygenating drug that made humans, who needed oxygen to survive, feel as if they were soaring through the heavens, untouchable and invincible (if it didn't kill them).
"I should know," I muttered under my breath.
I'd flown for years before being forced into rehab. (Twice) I'd been too wasted to recall the first, but I remembered the second very well, the memory of it burned into my brain.
My mom had picked me up after school one day. Uncaring of her reaction, I'd smoked a Snow Angel just before she arrived. Not enough to pass out, but just enough to fragment my thoughts and emotions, making me loopy, disoriented, and a total pain in the ass.
Nothing could touch me when I was like that. Not anger, not fear, not sadness.
She'd known what I'd done the instant she spotted me -- the glassy eyes and blue lips always gave users away -- yelling in front of the other kids waiting for their parents, "Damn you, Phoenix! Is this how you put your life back together?"
Some of the kids around me snickered; some stared at me with disgust. Still uncaring, I didn't sit up, just continued to lounge on the steps. The sun was shining, bright and warm. Maybe I'd spend the rest of the day here.
"I asked you a question, young lady."
"And I didn't give you an answer," I'd replied with a laugh. "Now hush."
"Hush? Hush! You're ruining your life, you're ruining my life, and you don't even care!" She abandoned the car and stomped to me, scowling down at me. "I'm supposed to go to work, but I can't leave you alone like this. No telling what you'll do."
I laughed again. "You're a waitress. It's not like you make a difference in the world. And you know what else? Whatever I do is my business, not yours."
Hurt washed over her face, but she squared her chin. "Whether I make a difference or not, my job is what pays for your food and your shelter and your clothes." She grabbed my shoulders and shook me. "Your actions become my business when you steal my hard-earned money to buy the very drugs that are killing you. Your actions become my business when you run away to God knows where and I don't see you for days."
"Just, I don't know, shut up and go away or something. You're ruining my buzz." Dizzy, I tried to push her hands away but didn't have the strength. That, too, made me laugh.
She didn't reply for several strangled seconds, just stared at me as if I were a bottle of poison and she'd just digested the entire contents. Other parents had arrived, I realized, and watched us unabashedly.
My mom realized it, too, and wheeled around to face them. "What are you staring at?" she snapped. "Get your kids and go home."
"Your daughter is seriously disturbed," someone muttered.
"She's a menace," someone else, a man, said. "And if she ever comes near my child, I'll call the cops and have her locked away."
"Don't worry, Daddy," one of the more popular girls at the school said in a snotty voice. I couldn't recall her name, but I knew she was a straight-A student, an all-around goody-goody, and someone I despised because she always seemed so put together, as if the world were her own personal treasure chest. "I'd rather kill myself than go near her."
I pushed to my feet, wobbling as another wave of dizziness struck. I meant to approach her, realized I'd fall, so remained in place, saying instead, "You can fuck the hell off." With that, I gave her and her dad a double-birded salute. "Feel free to kill yourself like you promised. Or maybe call me and I'll come over and do it for you."
There was a gasp. An enraged snarl.
My mom dragged me into the car after that. I hadn't cared at the time, but she'd cried the entire way home and shipped me to rehab that very evening.
Once I'd sobered up, the memory had embarrassed and shamed me. Still did. I'd made my own mother feel worthless, and I'd laughed about it.
I didn't want to be that uncaring girl ever again. I kept thinking, What if, next time I use, I do something worse? What if, next time, I couldn't be forgiven -- by my mom or myself? I mean, a guy I met in rehab had later killed himself because he'd been humiliated by the things he'd done to support his habit.
I hadn't reached that point. And I won't.
I refused to fly anymore. Which was hard, now that I was back in school and surrounded by friends who flew every weekend. Harder still as I stood in that ethereal moonlight, the world around me beckoning with promises of numbness and invincibility.
Those promises had always been my downfall.
I just, I didn't fit in with the other kids at school. They saw me as the goody-goody had. Worthless, untrustworthy. Tainted. These were the only kids that accepted and understood me, so I didn't want to leave them.
Stay strong, Phoenix. Stay strong. As I sipped my beer, I leaned against the jagged bark of a tree. I'd arrived only a few minutes ago, parked in front of an abandoned warehouse like everyone else, and trekked through the forest. Late. As always. I had debated coming at all.
Now, as I studied the scene in front of me, I realized I shouldn't have come, no matter how much I missed my friends. No matter how alone I felt.
No matter how determined I thought my resolve to remain sober.
Plumes of white smoke wafted, like mist, almost like ghosts, enveloping the kids who were puffing Snow Angels. I bit my bottom lip. Oh, the temptation...months ago I would have joined them without thought. Would have inhaled the sweet, after-rain scent of the drug and soared through the stars.
A painful need to do just that washed through me. In seconds I could be giddy, invincible. Fly...fly...I could forget the way my dad had walked out on me and my mom two years ago; I could forget my mom's constant disappointment in me. I could even forget the little stresses of the day, where it didn't matter who liked me and who didn't.
"Phoenix!" a familiar voice called happily. "Thank God. You came, you sexy bitch."
I glanced to my left, following the direction of the words. My friend, Jamie Welsh, was approaching, her black curls bouncing on her shoulders. She smiled, her expression as happy as her tone. The firelight flickered over her heavily painted face and illuminated her black syn-leather dress and knee-high boots.
"I couldn't stay away," I admitted.
Jamie threw her arm around my shoulders and clinked our beers together. "You left Chateau Insano two weeks ago, but this is the first I've seen you outside of class. What's that about?"
Chateau Insano. Our name for rehab. It fit. I had gone crazy for a while, hitting the walls, screaming, destroying any piece of furniture -- or person -- I could get my hands on, all in an attempt to fight my way free.
"My mom's become my warden," I said, the words dripping with self-deprecation. "I spend most of my time at home now."
"Poor baby," she said, sympathetic. "Thank God you escaped tonight, though." She drained the rest of her beer and tossed the glass onto the ground. "It's gonna get freaky!"
I tapped my foot to the beat of the music, trying to cut off a groan. "Something going down?"
"Just the usual. You know, all the things our parents hate. As if they didn't do the same things when they were young."
I couldn't picture my mom doing anything wild, not now, not ever. She was so...starched. Not just her appearance: unwrinkled clothing and pale, slicked-back hair. But her personality. If she wasn't working, she was cleaning the house, not giving a single speck of dust time to settle. She never drank, never seemed to have a moment of relaxation.
Pacing, worrying, those were her favorite pastimes. Because of me, I thought, a little sad.
"Hey," Jamie said, drawing my attention. "You're all stiff. You, like, need to lighten up. Have you seen Allison Stone's brother? That'll help you for sure."
"No." I hadn't even known Allison had a brother. In fact, I'd thought Allison had moved away a year ago. "Allison's here?"
"Yeah, but forget Allison. Allison Smallison, we want to talk about her brother. He graduated a few years ago, before you moved here, then joined the military. The few, the proud, or some other shit," she said, rolling her eyes. "I don't think you two ever met."
"You'll hate yourself for that when you see him." As she spoke, Jamie withdrew a small, plastic vial from the hidden, zippered pouch on the side of her boot. Druggies always had ways to hide their stash. "I've kept an eye out for him all these years, but he rarely comes home. Until now," she added with a wicked smile. "He's finally here."
I almost groaned again when I spotted the vial. Onadyn, or "Breathless," the liquid form of the drug. Stronger than powder, more potent than pills. Ten thousand times better than Snow Angels. You didn't just fly to the stars with Breathless, you became one.
For a little while, at least, I reminded myself, but I was unable to tear my gaze from the vial. My hand shook with the desire to reach out and snatch it. I could drain it before Jamie even realized what I'd done.
When you crash, you crash hard, Phoenix. You don't need that right now. After Breathless, a person burned and ached and dreamed of their next hit. They would kill for it. Steal for it.
But it's so damn good. One more time couldn't possibly hurt me.
Jamie uncorked the top. She drained half and offered the rest to me. I continued to stare at the clear, swirling liquid for a moment, hungry, so hungry. Tremors raked me. I'll end up back in rehab. I'll hurt my mom again. Everything I've gained will be lost.
"Want a sip?" she asked.
Finally, I gathered my wits and shook my head. "No thanks."
She frowned and pushed the bottle closer to me, right under my nose. "Your mom won't know."
I experienced a flicker of irritation -- and need. She was right. Mom would never have to know. I could -- I ground my teeth together. No. Stop! I wasn't like that. Not anymore. "No thanks," I repeated firmly.
Undeterred, she waved the bottle back and forth. The clear liquid swished back and forth, nearly hypnotizing me. For some, Onadyn held a faint dewy scent. For others, for most actually, it was scentless. How I wished it was scentless to me. My mouth watered.
"You absolutely positively sure?" she asked.
No. "Yes." I turned my face away.
Jamie shrugged and downed the rest.
I released a sigh of...relief, I hope.
The vial joined the beer bottle on the ground, and they rolled together. Damn. I looked again. "You have got to see him," Jamie said.
My brows furrowed in confusion. "Who?"
"Ryan Stone, silly. Allison's brother. Why he came, I don't know and I don't care. I'm just glad he's here." Her face scrunched. "I don't know why his sister came, either. Her, I do care about. I wish she'd have stayed home, the snobby bitch."
Allison had never partied with us. She'd been one of those goody-goodies who made life appear easy. She'd practically floated down the halls, a golden halo on her head, angel wings on her back. Everyone (but us) had loved her.
"Remember how she used to glare at us with disgust during class?" Jamie asked. "I wanted to scratch her eyes out."
Yeah, I remembered. I'd been happy to see her leave. "Tell me again what's so special about Ryan. With a sister like his, he can't be all that great."
Jamie giggled, her voice a little hoarse and a lot shallow as her oxygen levels dropped. "Wait till you see him. He's beyond doable. He's -- " She looked past the bonfire and frowned. "Where'd he go? If he's making out with -- wait. There," she said, pointing. "Yum yum."
My gaze followed the direction of her finger, but I only saw kids I knew. A few were still standing. Most were collapsed on the ground, strung out and staring up at the black velvet sky, flying high. "I don't see him."
Jamie stumbled forward, chuckled, and righted herself. She latched onto my wrist, tugging me close. "Look there."
Curiosity intensifying, I searched again -- and this time, I saw him. I knew it was him and didn't need it confirmed. Dear God. My mouth fell open and warm tingles immediately spread over my skin. He had brown hair, yet there appeared to be strands of gold in the firelight. And even from the distance, I could see that his eyes were bright blue, crystalline, more breathtaking than Onadyn.
His sharp cheekbones gave him a menacing appearance, as if he wanted to fight the entire world. He had a slightly crooked nose, as if the world had taken him up on the offer a time or two. He also had the faintest dusting of a shadow beard on his jaw. Very...older man meets preppy. Not like the boys at my school, who were still in the early stages of muscledom (not that they'd ever admit it).
Ryan wasn't just hot; he was blazing.
Obviously more experienced than the high school crowd surrounding him, he radiated an I'll-kick-your-ass-if-you-talk-to-me vibe. He wasn't drinking or smoking, just watching everything that happened around him.
"Killer, isn't he?" Jamie asked with another wicked grin. Then she wobbled on her feet and frowned. "Stupid shoes."
Yeah, it's your shoes and not the lack of oxygen in your brain, I thought dryly, still not taking my gaze from Ryan.
He chose that moment to glance over at me, as if he'd sensed my scrutiny. For a split second, our eyes clashed together, locked. A shiver traveled the length of my spine just before he looked away, dismissing me as he would a pesky fly.
Irritation flooded me, and my jaw hardened. Boys -- younger, older, didn't matter -- always did that. Looked away. I was cute, or so I'd been told, but I wasn't beautiful like Jamie and so I was, apparently, unworthy of prolonged attention. I wasn't overflowing in the breast department, either. Another strike against me.
"He's an asshole," I gritted out.
Jamie muttered something unintelligible and stumbled forward once more. Reaching out, I wound my arm around her waist. "Come on," I said. "Time to lie down."
Her only response was a strangled gasp.
I eased her onto the dirt and grass, dropping my beer along the way. Jamie was heavier than she appeared and her dress didn't bend easily. When I finally got her settled on the ground, I righted her clothing to cover all the important parts.
Crouching beside her, I peered down and sighed. Her green eyes were glassy and fixed straight ahead. Her lips were parted and tinted blue as her lungs tried unsuccessfully to suck in air. Was this what my mother had seen, each time she'd looked at me?
There was nothing else I could do for Jamie. She'd fly for the rest of the night.
With another sigh, I pushed to my feet. I turned toward the dancing circle, not knowing what to do with myself just then. Stay guard over Jamie in case someone decided to molest her? Go home before my mom found out I'd left?
Nah. I couldn't leave Jamie. I'd never forgive myself if something happened to her.
Unbidden, my gaze slid back to Ryan. He was watching me, I realized with surprise. And pleasure. I'd never met a boy who radiated such power.
Again, warm tingles fluttered over my skin. My stomach clenched. I hated the way I was reacting to him. That had never happened to me before.
Before he could look away from me, I looked away from him. Ha! How do you like that?
The music reached a high-pitched crescendo, echoing through the night. In less than an hour, everyone here would be passed out. There was too much smoke in the air for anyone to remain sober for long -- even me. So as soon as everyone had nodded off, I'd head home. No one could hurt Jamie if everyone was snoozing.
But I hated the thought of going home as much as I hated the thought of staying here for much longer. I'd have to deal with my mom. I shuddered. Things weren't smooth between us yet. She was constantly going through my things, looking for drugs. She wasn't even close to trusting me.
Why should she? I snuck out at the first opportunity. I'd just, well, I'd really needed a break from her sad, you'll-be-back-on-drugs-soon-enough glances. I'd needed to forget.
Don't think about that. Not here of all places, where temptation lurks. What could I do to keep my mind occupied? Dance?
No. If I joined the dancing circle, the fire would heat me inside and out and my resolve would weaken. I would smoke. If I smoked, I wouldn't stop until I was numb. And if I became numb, I wouldn't care about staying sober.
In that moment, I felt more out of place than I had in a long time. I didn't belong here, and I didn't belong with the other kids at school, the ones who considered me better off dead. I didn't belong at home with my mother, either, a woman who made me feel guilty and depressed every time I looked at her.
"Take your friend and go home," a deep male voice suddenly said.
Startled, I whipped my attention to the side. My eyes widened. Ryan Stone was standing next to me, a slash of black clothes and intimidating male. I hadn't even heard him approach. Not the snap of a twig, not the roll of a rock or the pound of a boot.
Up close, he towered over my five-foot-seven frame. His shoulders were broad, his arms hard and strong. His eyes were...freaky. I'd thought they were pretty from a distance. Wrong. They practically swirled with blue and flecks of purple. They didn't look like human eyes.
Was he an alien?
No, couldn't be. Except for his eyes, he appeared to be fully human. Aliens did not. I'd always thought they were recognizable with one glance. The Delenseans had blue skin and multiple arms. The Bre-Alees excreted slime, so they always appeared wet. The Mecs changed colors with their moods, glowing like neon signs. The Arcadians had similar bodies and facial features to us but their skin was much paler and their eyes were a metallic purple color, inhuman.
There were more alien types than I could name. Still. Same story. They looked different from us. The ones I know about, at least.... But I did not want to consider that.
Ryan frowned at me, and it was one of the darkest expressions I'd ever seen. Scary.
"Take your friend and go home," he repeated.
"Why?" I asked, raising my chin, refusing to budge. He'd dismissed me only a few minutes ago. The fact that he was now eager to get rid of me only made it worse. Who did he think he was?
"There's going to be trouble with the Outers tonight, and you do not want to be a part of it."
Aliens a.k.a. "the Outers." I had nothing against them; they'd lived and walked among us for over seventy years. I'd learned in history class that they'd only been allowed into our school system and workforce about twenty years ago. But they'd always been a part of my life and had never caused me trouble, so Ryan could go screw himself.
Outers rarely caused trouble, to be honest; they were too afraid of being killed by A.I.R., Alien Investigation and Removal, an elite unit very similar to police or military or FBI. Except deadlier. Meaner. More blood thirsty.
They were the stuff of legends and movies.
Everyone, even humans, feared them. They could mow you down like roadkill if they even suspected you were guilty of helping an alien commit a violent crime. And it would be perfectly legal. They were judge, jury, and executioner.
"What makes you think there'll be trouble?" I asked, humoring him. A part of me didn't want him to leave my side.
He didn't look at me when he said, "Maybe I spotted a few aliens when I hiked through the forest."
"So," I said with a laugh.
"So," he said with a scowl.
I snorted and waved a hand in dismissal. "Are you an Outer hater or something?"
Ryan's eyes narrowed, but he didn't answer.
"You paranoid, then?" I'd been thinking about leaving only a few minutes ago. Now I wanted to stay. Maybe it was the rebel in me. Maybe it was the fact that I was talking to one of the hottest boys I'd ever seen -- a boy who, with only a few words, had made me feel more alive than I had in a long, long time, even though he couldn't wait to get rid of me. "Think the Outers are out to get us and steal our planet? Well, guess what? You should have paid better attention in class. Even I know the War of the Species is over. Has been for like sixty years. Everyone's friendly now."
To end the war that had almost destroyed our planet, the Outers and humans had signed a peace treaty, which gave aliens permission to stay here and A.I.R. the right to police and destroy as needed. I'd had to memorize the stupid thing, not that I could recall a single word now.
A muscle ticked under Ryan's eye. "You know for a fact that they're friendly?"
"When was the last reported violent crime, hmm?"
"So the media reports everything now? That's a newsflash to me." He laughed, but the sound lacked humor. "Ignorant, that's what you are. You have no idea what you're messing with, little girl."
Ignorant? Little girl? My eyes narrowed, just like his had done earlier. I closed some of the distance between us. He smelled like firelight and pine. "Every girl here is my age or younger. What'd you come here for? To get you a piece of ass from one of these little girls, right? So what does that make you?"
His jaw hardened, making it a determined square. "That's not -- "
A strange, eerie howl suddenly cut through the night. The sound was raspy, animalistic. Close. Startled, I glanced left and right, halfway expecting a wolf to be nearby. Not that there were many left in the world.
Just my luck, though, the last one still kicking would be nearby, hungry for a big, delicious platter of human girl.
Ryan cursed under his breath. He withdrew a weird-looking gun from his side, and I gasped. I backed away, palms up, the wolf forgotten. "What are you doing? Put that away before someone gets hurt."
Another howl rent the air, followed by another and yet another. Obviously, there wasn't just one wolf. There were...God knows how many. I shuddered.
"I told you to leave," Ryan said. Frowning, he twisted a dial on the side of the gun. "But no, you had to stay. That decision's going to cost you."
The howls blended with multiple growls, all of them low and menacing.
I lost my focus on Ryan's weapon, forgot about his threat. "What is that?" I whispered, trying to see past the trees to something, anything, that could be making such a terrible sound.
"That's death," Ryan said bleakly. "And it's too late to avoid it now."
Copyright © 2007 by Gena Showalter