It happened so quickly. The socket sent out a small shower of sparks. JD jerked his hand away but not fast enough; pain surged in his fingers, and he could feel heat-induced goose bumps ripple down his arm. Damn it. He blew on his fingers, shaking them in front of his chest. That’s gonna leave a mark.
JD stared down into the space between the hood and the headlight, noting the way he’d have to twist his hand in order to place the new bulb exactly right—without burning off his fingerprints, ideally. These lights were delicate; you didn’t want to handle them too much before they went into their sockets, otherwise they’d flame out in a matter of days. It was hard for him to be careful lately—he felt like he would squeeze and crack anything he touched.
This morning was especially bad. He’d been leaning over the old Mustang for an hour, fiddling under the hood with this knob and that piece of wire . . . but in reality he’d just been enjoying the metallic silence. His arms were bare against the damp spring morning and his jeans were covered in black smears of oil and dirt. He’d have to go inside and change soon; he knew that. You couldn’t show up to a funeral covered in grease. But he was putting it off as long as he could.
“JD? JD, honey, don’t you think it’s time to come in?” His mother’s voice—gentle, tentative—floated out to the driveway. He looked down and realized that he’d had a death-grip on the screwdriver for who knows how long. He threw it forcefully into the metal toolbox, where it landed with a clang. As he flexed and unflexed his hand, he headed toward the house. Apparently he couldn’t put it off any longer.
For the first time maybe ever, JD regretted his clothes: too many colors, too many patterns. Not one nice button-down, not one tie that didn’t feature sunglasses or turtles or something funny. Did he really own nothing he could wear to Drea Feiffer’s memorial service?
He’d have to swipe something from his dad’s closet. His dad was a lot bigger, and JD would look like a kid playing dress-up, but he already felt like he was playing dress-up—trying on someone else’s life, maybe. At least sometimes he wished he was. At any second he expected he might wake up and find that the
past week, since Spring Fling and the fire that had consumed Ascension High School’s gym and Drea’s death, had just been some awful hallucination.
One week. One week of floating, bad dreams, and sickening guilt. A week since he’d rescued Em from the smoke and flames—and in doing so, left Drea behind. A shudder of guilt ran along his spine. He flung open his dad’s closet door and tried to focus on the silk ties, all variations of blacks, blues, browns, and grays.
School was closed for two days after the accident; even when it reopened, Em did not return. She’s going to take the week and see how she feels, JD heard Em’s mom, Susan Winters, say to his parents one night. Theories ran rampant at school: Em’s lungs were permanently scarred due to smoke inhalation. She was horribly burned in the fire, doomed to be disfigured forever. The doctors had cut off all of Em’s long, beautiful dark hair in order to address the blisters on her scalp and neck.
JD knew none of that was true. Em’s trauma was mental—she’d been struck by the deaths, in quick succession, of Sasha Bowlder and Chase Singer late last year. And now . . . Drea and Em had only recently become close, but JD sensed that both girls had bonded quickly—that Drea had become really important to Em. Which, frankly, surprised JD. Just this past Christmas, Em was still cracking jokes about Drea’s uniform when they went to the movies.
But something had obviously changed in Em since then. Something had changed in Ascension.
He hadn’t spoken with Em in a week. He’d seen her only once, just out of his periphery: the wisp of a figure flitting past the window in her room, which directly faced his. She’d looked like a ghost; he might not have even noticed if it wasn’t for her long brown hair. But he knew he’d probably see her at the church today, honoring their friend Drea: Drea of the half-shaved head and black nail polish and clove cigarette smell and dripping sarcasm.
His throat tightened up. Jesus. He was going to miss her.
He needed to talk to Em today, and know that she was okay. He couldn’t bear to lose her, too.
JD selected a navy-blue tie to go with the gray suit he’d unearthed from the back of his dad’s closet. It was vintage—pinstripe—but not over the top. Fumbling with the knot as he faced his parents’ mirror, JD gave himself a once-over. He hardly recognized himself in his father’s clothing. It might have been a stranger in the mirror: hair slicked back, fifties-style glasses, polished black shoes. Like one of those ad guys on Mad Men. JD wondered momentarily whether Em watched that show—whether she’d think he looked okay in a suit—and then hated himself for being so shallow.
He took a deep breath, then headed downstairs—going as slowly as possible, as if he could delay the inevitable.
“Poor Walt,” JD’s mom said as they piled into the family station wagon. “First his wife . . . now Drea . . . ”
“He’s going to fall apart,” his dad said matter-of-factly as usual. “He’s barely been holding it together these past few years.” Mr. Fount and Mr. Feiffer knew each other from work—JD’s dad bought fish for his restaurant from Walt Feiffer’s seafood warehouse down on the waterfront in Portland. Over the years, Mr. Fount had made little comments here and there, about how Drea’s dad smelled like booze early in the morning, or how he once saw him crying over a bucket of clams.
“It’s a terrible coincidence. . . . ” His mom trailed off, fiddling with her seat belt.
“What is?” Melissa piped up from the backseat.
“Well, it’s just that . . . he caused an accident a few years ago. It was a fire—and Drea was almost hurt. He was drinking then, too. But now . . . ”
“Let’s just leave it at that, Mom,” JD said.
In the backseat on the way to the memorial service, he watched the thawing landscape whirring past the car window. Everything is changing.
Truth was, any one of them could have died in the gym. It could have been his funeral today, and the only thing he’d have to show for his barely seventeen years on Earth would be a pile of stellar report cards, a few credits in school-play programs for lighting gigs, and years of romantic regrets. Well, just one regret, really.
Em. He’d known her his whole life and yet, weirdly, he seemed to understand her less and less. He was sure that he’d seen her making out with another guy that night at the Behemoth, the night of the bonfire, the night he heard her laughing at him. And not just any guy. This guy, Crow, was up for Asshole of the Year.
Em had gone from one jerk (Zach) to another (Crow), and just when JD had started to believe he might have a chance. It was infuriating and humiliating, and yet . . .
He had to get past all that, somehow. Because there was simply no way around it: JD loved Em. Always had. Always.
No matter what happened.
They’d grown up next door to each other; their parents had been close since their college days in Orono. From vacationing to carpooling to potlucking, the families did everything together, and JD and Emily had been inseparable as children. But not like brother and sister.
Maybe that was because he already had a sister.
He glanced over at thirteen-year-old Melissa, who sat next to him in the backseat, texting. Her face bore that signature expression of preternatural, blissed-out focus, the look that meant she was probably going to still be texting—or chatting or IMing or whatever—for the rest of the night. His younger sister had, without question, gotten 100 percent of the Fount sociability genes.
Mel didn’t even know Drea, not really, except for running
into her the few times she’d come over to study. But JD had insisted that his whole family come to the funeral, and his parents agreed this was best. They had a way of sensing when someone needed them, and they’d always seemed to have that sense around Drea, probably because they felt bad for her—they knew her mother had died ages ago and her father was pretty much mentally MIA. The times Drea had been at the Fount household, his parents had gone out of their way to make her comfortable.
Or maybe that was because they’d assumed she and JD were dating.
Either way, here they all were, coming to the funeral, sharing in the agonizing discomfort of it. And JD was grateful for that.
He knew he was lucky to have them.
Still, the only person he really wanted to see right now was Em.
Em was family, and yet not family. More like a partner in crime. The cream-cheese frosting to his carrot cake. Without her, his life would have been blander, less sweet. As kids, she’d always been the one to get them into trouble, and he to get them out. She’d challenge him to race out to the half-rotten raft all the way in the middle of Galvin Pond; he’d remind her when it was time to return to shore, and carry her, piggyback, when she got tired of walking home. She’d convince him that pranking the babysitter by hiding her cell phone in the middle of a Jell-O mold was funny; he’d talk them out of a grounding when their parents
came home. Without Em, JD would have been just another geeky tall kid who did really well at science fairs. With her, he felt brighter. Happier. Less like a loser.
With Em, he was like a knight in shining . . . vintage polyester.
Somewhere deep inside him, JD could admit that his bizarre self-confidence had its roots in his friendship with Em. In middle school, when popularity started to matter, Em and the impossibly cheerful Gabby Dove had effortlessly assumed spots at the top of the hierarchy. While his shyness and complete lack of interest in competitive sports did JD no favors among the guys, Em never blew him off. She still wanted to come over for movie marathons; she still giggled when he made up fake fortunes for their fortune cookies. And he had his own friends—Ned, whom he’d known since Boy Scouts, and Keith, another member of the Young Engineers Club. Recently, he’d hung out a bit with this guy Aaron who was in Ascension’s vocational program, studying to be a car mechanic. Aaron had given him some great pointers on his mission to fix up the Mustang. And Drea, of course, whom he had bonded with over history trivia and an appreciation of cop dramas on TV.
At some point, JD had realized that there were no “requirements” he had to fulfill in order to keep Em in his life. She didn’t judge him or expect him to measure up to some standard. And because of that he had started to . . . be himself. He liked old clothes—old stuff in general, actually, vintage watches and junky
record players and shit that never got sold anymore. So he wore vintage T-shirts. He liked lights, especially theatrical lighting, so he signed up to design the lights for school plays. He did his thing, and Em did hers, and they always came together to check into each other’s worlds.
But that girl was lost to him now . . . had been since winter break.
“What did you do to your hand?” Melissa’s voice broke him out of his reverie, and he looked down at the red blisters that were blooming on his left hand.
“Just a little burn,” he said as he tugged down his sleeve. “You might want to disengage from that thing before we go inside,” he added, glancing at her phone as they pulled into the church parking lot. She rolled her eyes, but placed her cell on the seat between them.
The lot was, surprisingly, full of cars. JD felt a flicker of anger. Hardly anyone had been nice to Drea when she was alive. She was a weirdo, at least by typical high school standards. Did Ascensionites think they’d get extra credit if they showed up for the memorial service? He hated how people only cared after the fact. It was like that after Sasha Bowlder committed suicide, too.
Or maybe it was the guilt. The kids in his school had laughed at Drea and Sasha when they were alive. They’d accused them of being witches and performing midnight rites in the Haunted
Woods; they’d whispered about them getting naked and painting themselves with blood. Maybe all the recent shock was forcing his classmates to get their heads out of their own asses.
“There’s that girl who had that terrible accident a few weeks ago,” his mom whispered to his dad, who nodded with solemn recognition. It was Skylar McVoy, who was limping into the building—wearing an oversize black dress that made her look tiny and frail. She was on the arm of an older woman. JD shuddered. He’d barely known Skylar before the Gazebo’s glass ceiling had collapsed on her; now that section of the cafeteria had been cordoned off and she was a minor celebrity, having escaped with horrible, but not life-threatening, injuries.
His family filed into the church and sat in a pew toward the back, with JD scooting the farthest into the row and Mel immediately following. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets, trying desperately not to stare at the open casket at the front of the room. Melissa nudged him with her elbow and cocked her head, giving him a look that asked without actually asking: Are you okay? He gave her a thumbs-up and did his best to approximate a smile.
But he was definitely not okay.
Dust motes revolved lazily in the light streaming through the stained-glass windows. It was warm in the church, too bright. The smell of musky incense mixed with sympathy bouquets was unfamiliar—his family never went to church. He couldn’t get
comfortable; the bench was too hard and he felt like he was overheating. In the process of wrestling off his coat, he nearly elbowed the girl on the other side of him in the face. “Sorry,” he whispered.
She was small, with wavy, honey-blond hair and an elfin face. She was wearing all black, except for a bright red ribbon tied tightly around her neck. He’d never seen her before—maybe she was part of Drea’s “non-Ascension” crowd. Drea had hung around at punk clubs and attended dub-step shows religiously—she’d made friends from all over.
“That’s okay,” she said. She didn’t look like one of Drea’s music friends, though. She looked like a plastic model of a person, almost too perfect. Her face seemed oddly frozen into an expression of neutrality, like one of the dolls Mel used to play with. “I’m Meg.”
“JD,” JD muttered absently. He wasn’t in the mood to make small talk. Wrong place, wrong time. He scanned the room, looking for Em. His heart skipped. There. Em and her parents were sitting close to the front with Gabby and the Doves. Her head was down and he could see her shoulders moving ever so slightly. She looked broken. Beautiful, but broken.
Everything is changing, JD thought again. Life was short and he couldn’t waste any more time. He had to forgive Em, and then tell her how he felt: that he loved her. He had realized he loved her years ago, and remembered the moment exactly.
They’d been on the couch in his den, watching a documentary about the death penalty for their freshman year civics class. It was just some boring assignment; he was getting ready to turn the movie off and pop in another movie so he could hear her laugh. But when he turned to Em, he saw tears streaming down her face.
And his first, overwhelming instinct was to reach over and comfort her somehow—but he realized he, too, needed her comfort. He wanted to smell her hair, to scoop her up, kiss her, and tell her it would all be okay. Instead, he’d shoved a box of tissues at her and turned back to the movie, heart pounding, earth-shattered.
That was the day JD admitted to himself that he was in love with his best friend.
The service began with a brief sermon, and it wasn’t long before a heavy pressure started to build in JD’s chest. He felt heat pricking at the backs of his eyes and the bridge of his nose, and he forced himself to look around the room to distract himself. His eyes drifted from Em’s back to the dark, wooden, satin-lined casket to the heaps of flowers toward the front of the room. Sent by grieving—or guilty—classmates, probably. One of the arrangements in particular stood out: an enormous bouquet of red orchids. They looked strange and garish next to the other flowers, in muted shades of cream and white, and reminded him unpleasantly of blood. His stomach twisted.
“. . . and now, we welcome to the podium Drea’s good friend Colin Roberts, who will perform a song he wrote for today.” JD snapped back to attention and watched Crow walk to the microphone, holding his guitar in one hand and brushing his black hair out of his eyes with the other.
There he was: Asshole of the Year. What did Em see in this guy? What had Drea seen in him? Crow hadn’t even finished high school. Rumor was, he dropped out—before he could be kicked out. JD had hung out with Crow only once, at a party at Drea’s house. They’d barely spoken, so JD knew only two things about Crow: He played in a band and he used to be really good with computers. Oh, and he smoked a lot of pot.
There was no question in JD’s mind that he and Crow were after the same girl. It was Crow who Em went to meet that night at the old mall. Which meant it was Crow who was to blame for what happened to JD there; he’d been hit in the head with a falling industrial pipe, an accident that nearly got him smothered in concrete and left to die. Luckily, Em had managed to get him out of there with just a scar above his eyebrow to show for it, but it was her fault that he’d been hurt in the first place.
Which meant it was Crow’s fault.
Crow cleared his throat and spoke into the microphone. “Many of you barely knew Drea,” he said, not even trying to conceal his disdain for the crowd in front of him. But then his voice broke as he went on. “Maybe . . . maybe it’s not too late for
you to pick up a thing or two from her anyway. She was always open-minded. Obsessed with everything unique and different. So if you want to honor her, try to be a little bit more like her from now on. Be like how she would want you all to be if she were still around to see it. Break away from the fold.” With that, he brought up his guitar. “Drea, this one’s for you.” And he began to pluck out a song, slowly at first.
Then he found the melody and his music washed over the room, at once sad and defiant.
Just like Drea.
JD was more than a little annoyed that the song was so good. Crow could really sing, too, in that raw, rough way that girls were always into—belting his voice into the air and tapping his foot to the beat. JD imagined Em staring up at him in the front row, listening to that voice, finding comfort in it. God, it made him feel sick how girls loved musicians. He lowered his head, consumed again by feelings of confusion and resentment.
He felt an elbow in his side.
“Here,” Red Ribbon Girl, Meg, murmured, offering a tissue. He was about to tell her he was okay, he wasn’t going to cry, but she pressed the tissue into his hand before he could resist. She must have mistook his annoyed expression for anguish. She turned her petite face at an angle and stared at him with that same doll-like expression: “Ya know, I’ve always thought death was really just the beginning of something else. Something we
can’t understand.” Her voice was light and girly, and yet it felt like ice sliding down his back.
JD nodded and turned back to the altar, hoping that the girl would leave him alone. She was clearly trying to be nice, but her whole attitude was so clinical it just came off creepy.
Crow was playing the final notes of his tribute. When he finished he turned and walked offstage without even acknowledging the quiet and respectful round of applause. Everyone clapped. Everyone except JD.
You may have won over this crowd, he thought. But Em will see through your bullshit eventually.
At the end of the service, JD squeezed his mom’s shoulder.
“Do you think I should go up there?” he asked, motioning toward the casket, where some mourners were lining up to pay their final respects.
“Only if you want to, JD,” his mother replied.
Of course he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to see Drea’s face, frozen in an eternal expression of death. He didn’t want to see what they’d done to her, how they’d “fixed her up” with makeup she’d never have worn. What if it was a cookie-cutter version of Drea Feiffer up there—made to look fake and plastic and everything she’d railed against her entire life? Plus, he thought open caskets were creepy. Who wanted to see their dead loved ones like that? But he owed her this. One last good-bye.
“All right, I’m going to do it,” he said.
As he pushed his way against the tide of the shuffling crowd, JD spotted Drea’s dad, Walt Feiffer, struggling with the same bouquet of giant orchids JD had noticed earlier. It was on the verge of tipping over, and Walt was attempting to right it. He was alone.
JD sighed and looked around. If no one else would help Drea’s dad, he would. He made his way over to the altar. Just as he was about to offer a hand, Walt let the flowers drop to his side—though it looked more like a shove—and JD wondered if Walt hadn’t been wrestling it to the ground this whole time.
“Can I help, sir?” JD barely recognized his own voice; it sounded strained.
Walt turned around. His eyes were red, and he smelled like alcohol. He was crying, too, letting tears stream down his face. JD was embarrassed for him, and felt guilty for being embarrassed. Walt had lost his daughter. He had the right to cry. And drink.
“First my Edie, now my Drea,” Mr. Feiffer said, slurring slightly. “What do I have left?” Another sob escaped the man’s throat.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Feiffer,” JD said. “Drea was a friend of mine.” The words of condolence stuck in JD’s throat. His mind flashed back to the scene in the gym: the hysteria, the heat, the smoke. Could he have saved Drea?
It was too late now.
Until this moment, he hadn’t understood or fully processed
the true horror of it: Drea was gone, and she was never coming back—ever.
He couldn’t do anything about it.
No one could.
He turned to the casket. He could see the top of Drea’s head, except it wasn’t her head—or rather, it wasn’t her hair; the undertaker must have put a wig on her. Was that because her burns were so bad, or because they wanted her to look more like a 1950s housewife than a rebellious teenage girl? JD swallowed hard and took another step closer.
Drea didn’t look like herself. Her navy-blue dress was plain and demure, and the wig—a straight brown bob—was jarring. Her features were placid, like she was in the middle of a deep sleep. Her hands were folded across her ribs, and there was a single flower tucked between them. It was bright red and intricate, like the orchids Drea’s dad had been wrestling with.
Good-bye, Drea. I’ll miss you.
“Did you put that there?” Walt Feiffer had come up behind JD and was pointing shakily at the flower. “Get it out of there. Get that away from my daughter.” He was in a frenzied panic, reaching over JD with such force that he practically tackled him. JD stumbled forward, closer to the casket than he would’ve liked, watching in horror as Walt tore the flower out of Drea’s hands and crushed it under his boot on the floor. JD fixed his eyes to the spot on the ground; the flower’s petals were smeared
and broken but the center remained more or less intact. He was reminded of the occasional dead bird he’d come across when he rode his bike as a kid.
JD looked up and noticed how those nearby looked quietly away, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
The reaction was intense, but JD remembered that if anyone was entitled to it, it was Walt. He needed to cut the guy some slack. After all, Mr. Feiffer had already lost his wife, many years ago, when Drea was still a little girl. JD couldn’t remember the details—Drea never talked about it—but he did recall that Edie Feiffer had died in an equally terrible accident. Locked in a freezer or something? And now Walt had lost his daughter, his only child, too.
Meanwhile, Mr. Feiffer had started fumbling with a cigarette and a silver Zippo. His hands were shaking violently. He was drunk, definitely. JD didn’t have the heart to remind him that they were still indoors—in a church. He did the only thing he could think of: He motioned for the lighter, took it, and lit the flame so Walt could take a long drag.
“She was a wonderful person, Mr. Feiffer,” JD said, hearing the lameness of the words even as he said them.
Mr. Feiffer didn’t even respond. His eyes were fixed on something invisible. Like he was gazing at nothingness. JD turned to go.
By that time, the crowd had thinned out significantly, and
Em was nowhere in sight. He trudged out of the church feeling more unsettled than ever.
• • •
Back at home, JD’s mom pulled out a homemade casserole from the freezer. “JD, honey, will you bring this over to Sue and Dave’s for me? They have a lot going on right now and I have a feeling they could use a good home-cooked meal.”
JD tried to recall the last time he’d gone over to the Winters’ house—certainly not since he’d gotten hurt at the Behemoth. With the exception of their almost make-up at the dance, before the fire, he and Em had barely exchanged ten friendly words in the last two months. He knew a lot of that was his fault. He’d been pissed at her for choosing Crow. He’d blamed her, too, for the accident that had nearly killed him. She’d tried to apologize a dozen times and he’d blown her off. But he was tired of being angry, and hurt, and not doing anything about it.
He was tired of missing her.
“Let me change,” he said, feeling in his pockets for his phone, which had just started buzzing. It was Ned.
“Hey, dude, I need you in the booth tomorrow,” Ned said, sounding his usual combination of frazzled and pumped. “One of the soundboards is on the fritz and I’m running rehearsal, so there’s no one else to check it out.”
Ned was directing this spring’s student play, some Greek
drama, and JD had promised to help out. He’d done lights and sound on a few previous shows—the engineering part of it came naturally to him. Plus he loved the calm, remote darkness of the booth, high above the stage, where you could see everything and everybody, but no one could see you.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” JD responded. Couldn’t hurt to have some distractions lined up. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He ran upstairs, replaced his gray suit with a more comfortable pair of jeans and his favorite yellow-and-black woolen flannel, then came back to retrieve the food from the kitchen.
It took about one minute to walk from his back door to the Winters’ front stoop; it was just enough to remind him of the last time he’d set foot in Em’s house: the day he left her flowers and a bar of chocolate. And a note. Always, JD. He could still picture the way Mrs. Winters had looked at him—like she had known that the gift was more than just an apology. That it was a confession, too, and a pledge.
He still didn’t know exactly what Em’s reaction had been to the gift.
“JD! What a nice surprise,” Em’s mom said when she appeared at the door.
“My mom thought you might want some casserole,” he said, holding up the dish.
“Oh, how sweet of her,” Sue said. “Let me take this into the kitchen.” Then, with only a second of hesitation, she added:
“Em is resting upstairs. I’m sure she’d love to see you, hon.” She turned and walked down the hallway toward the kitchen.
JD took a deep breath as he started up the stairs. This was it. His chance to come clean, to start over, to start something.
Em’s door was partly open; he knocked softly and, hearing no response, entered. Em was lying on her bed, still wearing her clothes from the memorial service, having fallen asleep while reading. Her dark hair was splayed across a mountain of white pillows, and her eyelashes fluttered ever so lightly from dreams JD hoped were good.
He felt a pang of disappointment and also relief. And, deeper than that: love. Plain and simple. She was so beautiful. He moved quietly across the room to turn off the lamp. As he did, he caught the title of the book she’d been reading: Conjuring the Furies. The book was old and worn, and JD could see that it was heavily flagged with Post-its.
Curious, he picked it up and flipped through the dusty pages. Mostly Greek and Roman mythology, probably for the independent English project that all of Mr. Landon’s students were working on in his absence. The former Ascension English teacher had been found dead last month, and the long-term sub had assigned semester-length research papers. Or maybe Em was planning to get involved in the school play?
JD stopped short at page thirty-eight: a detailed drawing of a bleeding snake. The caption read: Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.
Only blood will bring them back. He felt a sudden surge of nausea. He remembered the night he’d found Em in the graveyard, covered in mud, holding a dead snake. He’d been scared, worried, and disgusted all at once. She was grieving—going crazy because of all the deaths. That’s what he’d told himself at the time.
It was warm in the Winters’ house, but he shivered involuntarily. Creepy stuff. He’d bet money that this book wasn’t grief-counselor-approved. Should he mention it to her parents?
He turned the page to a new chapter: “Justice versus Revenge.” He adjusted his glasses and began to read.
Once summoned, the goddesses of vengeance don’t know when to stop—nor do they want to. They can’t distinguish between appropriate punishment and malevolent retaliation. The desire for revenge is subsumed by its evil underpinnings, leaving tortured victims in its wake.
JD felt like throwing the book across the room, or burying it. He didn’t go for energy and juju stuff but he could swear he felt bad vibes seeping from its pages, like toxins. Before he could close the book, Em stirred sleepily and opened her eyes. He could tell she’d been crying, but she managed a small, tentative smile. He smiled back, closing the book quietly and placing it down on her bedside table.
“Hi,” she said. Her voice sounded small.
“Hi,” he said. He felt awkward standing above her; he kneeled down next to the bed so their eyes were level. “My mom sent over some food, a casserole and—” He cut himself off before he could start to ramble. “Listen, Em, I know you’re having a hard time right now. And I wanted to tell you . . . I wanted to make sure you know . . . that I forgive you. I’m not mad at you anymore. I’m here for you. Always.”
She was half-asleep again, and he couldn’t force out the last bit of his speech. The most important part. The part about being in love with her. So instead, he kind of half-stroked her shoulder, pulled up the afghan that was folded at the bottom of her bed, tucked it around her, and left.
As he trekked back across his lawn, he replayed the last few minutes in his head. Em’s sleepy smile. The way his palms had tingled when he’d kneeled next to her. At least he’d said some of what he needed to say. There was some satisfaction in that.
But a sense of dread cut into any contentment he might have felt, and he blamed it on Em’s ancient book. He couldn’t shake the memory of the words Only blood will bring them back. What the hell did that mean? Hadn’t they all seen enough blood by now?