I was cold, like the roses on Joshua’s casket, like the muddy dark-brown soil waiting to embrace the lifeless remains of the boy who was my friend.
My fingers curled around the stem of a butter-yellow rose, knuckles tight. I blinked away the liquid burn stabbing my eyelids. I had to get out. Give him the rose. Then get the hell away.
I tried to squeeze past the old woman who guarded my route to the center aisle, glaring. Her stares slithered down my neck as I passed. I shuffled by, careful not to touch her. But she huffed, her shoulders stiff and unimpressed with my rudeness. Her disapproval slid down my back.
I straightened my pencil skirt and short coat, scraped my wet hands on my hips. I knew the cool black silk wouldn’t dry my sticky palms, but I did it anyway, needing to do something with my hands other than clutch the dead flower.
The slim heels of my pumps sank deep into wet ground. I jerked them free and swallowed, my throat aching with tears. My best friend would soon be entombed within this sodden mush, to lie beneath Craven forever. Until his flesh fell off his bones and he turned to dust.
A cool hand tapped my shoulder.
“Bryn Halbrook. ” She spat my name, each syllable harsh, and dripping venom to match the tiny emerald flecks in her hazel eyes. “You’ve got some nerve coming here.” Cherise Barnes knew she looked good, even in drab funerary garb. She stood, a bony hip jutting out, one foot forward. The Cherise pose.
The last thing I needed was a bitch-match. Not here. I straightened, pulling my jacket closer in the face of this poisonous storm. Her eyes widened as I drew to my full height. Guess Cherise forgot it wasn’t easy to intimidate a person who was a full head taller. I stared down at her.
“Perhaps you should leave.” She tapped the foot. “Now.”
“I am leaving, as soon as I pay my respects. You are holding me up.”
A streak of red colored her cheeks. She avoided my eyes, then addressed my ear. “You shouldn’t have come in the first place. You aren’t welcome here.”
She wasn’t backing off and I knew why. Cherise was The Body here in Craven. Not the body to die for, though, as most guys didn’t need to go that far to sample Cherise. Joshua had belonged to her, and she’d lost him. Lost him to me. Or so she thought.
I brushed past Cherise, had no patience for her any more. I fingered the bandage on my temple, touched the braid tied at my nape so my deep red hair wouldn’t tangle in the stitches on my scalp. The slight movement shifted my hair and the wound stung, releasing a flash of memory.
White light, blinding, sears my eyes.
Brighter now. Bright enough to hurt.
Tires squeal, harsh screams rip at my eardrums.
I swallowed a gasp, shoving the memory out of my head.
I had to get a grip.
I’d survived and he hadn’t. It didn’t matter anymore. The only person who’d supported me had died on me.
I’d known he would die. And I’d done nothing to stop it.
As I neared Joshua’s parents, they threw me weak and teary smiles, which made the dam of tears inside my own heart yearn to burst free. Even in their time of grief, they’d been so concerned about me, asking if I’d recovered enough to get out of the hospital, if I’d grieved enough, let it all out.
No one shared their concern, not last week and not today. Claws of ice scraped up and down my back. Again. More accusing stares. Too many eyes. More heads turning. Whispers. I ignored them. Concentrated on anything else but those voices. Cars passing by at the bottom of the hill. People going about their daily lives, neither knowing nor caring that a friend and a son and a brother was about to be consigned to the dead earth of Craven.
Stepping closer to the coffin I sucked in a sob; the hollow in my gut grew harder, more painful, as I stared at the shining black casket.
Roses trailed the ebony lid, droplets of color scattered across its gleaming surface by a careless yet artful hand. Eternity crept by while the box descended into the dark mouth of the grave.
The rainbow of color shivered, slim green stems entangled on the curve of the lid. One rose, bright, blood red, slid off, as the coffin moved deeper and deeper.
Ice sliced through my veins.
Piercing to the bone and to the soul.
Blank, grey afternoon skies shed occasional tears for Joshua O’Connell. The casket lurched, then continued its descent. I gave in. Better give him the rose, a little piece of me to take with him.
I choked on a breath, swallowing a wave of nausea.
Metal shrieks, grating in a lurid embrace. Deafening.
Sparks spit, ozone coats the back of my throat.
Gasoline fumes creep up my nostrils, burning, suffocating.
I stopped at the edge of the gaping wound in the earth. Something felt wrong. Inside the grave, the black box came to rest within deep grasping shadows. Darkness simmered, broken by a line of glimmering, golden light that seeped through the edges of the casket.
He still glowed and I was still helpless.
My fingers uncurled their desperate grip on the rose and it fell, tilting, to drop head first onto the coffin, twirling as it descended into the eerie depths. It hit the lid and shattered. Petals flew in all directions and everywhere yellow scraps of the dismembered flower reflected Joshua’s iridescent light.
I turned, eager to flee.
Not possible. Not in heels, which sank into the mushy soil as if the soft earth itself yearned to claim me. Not when mourners had risen from their seats and were lining up to toss soil and tributes onto the casket. I struggled for breath, my heart knocking double, triple time like an angry jackhammer abandoned in my chest.
I steered a path through the crowd. Ignored a young man in the middle row whose skin held the first yellow specks of iridescence. Who was he? Did it even matter who he was? I sighed. It wouldn’t be much longer for him anyway. I ignored the woman with the red-rimmed eyes, holding onto his arm. I didn’t want to see him patting her pale hand and giving her that watery smile.
Will she be alone, like me, when he’s gone? Who will pat her hand then?
Turning away, I kept walking. Didn’t want to look anymore. Didn’t want to see any more glowing people.
I breached the throng and paused to breathe.
To wait for my erratic heartbeat to slow down.
To forget I left my friend behind, alone in the unforgiving ground.
The first time I’d laid eyes on Joshua, he’d already begun to glow. What a way to kick off week one at Craven’s only high school. At the time, I had no idea what the aura meant, and there was no one I could talk to about it.
Not in Craven. Not anywhere.
I was the new kid in town, an outsider. New towns unnerved me. No surprise since I encountered a new town every few months, running the foster circuit, pushed around by funding cuts and just plain burnt-out foster parents who were never real parents anyway. And Craven was no different.
My foster mom, Ms. Patricia Custer, had tried to make me feel welcome, even insisting I call her Mom. Her big, broad smile matched her generous hips—tacit proof of her scrumptious cooking. Enormous white teeth in a mouth curved in a permanent smile, even when she scolded. But if Ms. Custer threw some sunshine onto my life at Craven, then North Wood High epitomized the dark zone. North Wood’s warm, redbrick buildings were at odds with the aloofness of the student body, the distant teachers and the near-vicious vice principal.
Arriving just in time for senior orientation didn’t help at all. Not as if I would fit in anyway. So I kept a low profile. Steered clear of the popular crowd, the jocks and the smart kids. Mouth shut. Head down. Waste of effort making friends. Even if they stuck around, they ended up turning on you. And if they didn’t turn, you left.
Two days later, the arrival of an unexpected package disturbed my usual process of new town assimilation. Lawyers handling my father’s estate had finally tracked me down. An official-looking letter confirmed it as a much-delayed sixteenth birthday gift. I moved around too much, wouldn’t have been easy to find.
I escaped to my room to unwrap the shoebox-size cardboard package. A flat rectangular box, covered in a deep green fabric, lay buried within piles of foam chips. I’d never received mail before. Giant butterflies fought for space in my stomach and I wondered what the box could possibly contain. I fiddled with a tiny gold wire clasp holding the lid shut tight, jiggling it, careful not to destroy the intricate filigree. At last the clasp gave and I lifted the heavy lid.
Within the box, on a bed of black satin, lay a pendant so exquisite, so entrancing, it stole the breath from my lungs. A warm, ethereal glimmer emanated from the elegant amber teardrop, as wide at its base as a dollar coin and encased by silver filigree lacework.
The gemstone sat in my palm, a little shining sun, warm and tingly and entrancing. The thick leather string should have clashed with the elegance of the silver filigree, yet it meshed. Richness tempered by the earthiness of the raw cord. I tied it around my neck and stood before the mirror, staring. The pendant sat in the hollow of my throat as if made and measured to fit, and after that day, it never left my neck. Its warmth soothed a little of the loneliness within the heart that beat beneath it.
The comfort of the amber jewel hadn’t taken my mind totally off of my new-school blues, but it certainly made things easier in the first few days. I could deal with the sideways glances, the up-and-down inspections, even the solitary lunchtimes.
I managed well enough on my own until I ran into Joshua. Yeah, I managed.
Until the day star quarterback Joshua O’Connell radiated the first dustings of gold. Sprinkled on his cheeks, shimmering in the sunlight and growing brighter each time I saw him.
A glow only I could see.
A glow that kept my eyes trained on him throughout our first Biology class together. I stared. And he noticed. He frowned at first, then grinned and winked. I paid little attention to the lesson, distracted by the glow on his skin and the clear warmth in his eyes.
After class I fumbled in my locker until the rather loud sound of a throat being cleared drew my head out of the metal space. Surprised, I looked into the eyes of the glowing boy.
“Hi,” he said. His cheery grin hadn’t faded. “You must be new. I’m Joshua.”
I stared at the hand he’d stuck out, then reluctantly grasped it. My first real welcome. Wow.
At least he didn’t assume I was stalker material. We hung out after school that day, and every day. He was safe. Safe because Joshua and I didn’t have the whole chemistry thing going on. Just friends. He wasn’t my type; I knew that much even though I hadn’t yet defined a personal type, romantic or otherwise. And my height posed a problem. Hardly the best start to a romance, towering over a guy.
So we talked. A lot. I assumed he’d never understand me, but Joshua surprised me. He understood being different. He was beige. Not quite black enough, not quite white enough; his mom was Indian and his dad one hundred percent Irish, straight off the plane.
He was awesome enough to look at, with all that naturally tanned skin and black, black eyes. The ebony hair made him look all the more bad-boy. Which he totally wasn’t.
But it didn’t take long before I couldn’t bear to be in his company for more than a few minutes at a time. Looking at his ever-brightening face hurt my eyes, bringing on strange, persistent headaches. Avoiding Joshua rocked the foundations of our friendship. I had hurt him, but he didn’t take my sudden aloofness lying down.
He insisted on walking me home one day, ignoring the fact that I was ignoring him. “Why are you avoiding me?” he demanded, a dark scowl wrinkling his good looks. I didn’t look at him, just put one foot in front of the other and gritted my jaw against the headache gnawing at my temples.
I couldn’t tell him that it hurt to look at him. I couldn’t tell him that I had this weird gift. The ability to see strange auras around random people wasn’t exactly useful, and I’d learned the hard way to be careful who I told.
I’d seen the glow before. Had seen it since forever. No amount of psychiatrists could make it go away. For some strange reason my father understood and accepted my weird visions. I remained grateful until he was no longer there to stand by me. After that, I never spoke of it again.
Even if I told Joshua he’d never believe me. And I would’ve been fine staying silent if it hadn’t been for Aimee Graham. I’d seen her around school, on and off. The short, dark-haired girl had glowed and brightened, soon matching Joshua’s glowing intensity, until she stopped coming to classes altogether. I’d had no idea what the golden auras meant until she returned to school one fall morning, and the rumors began.
Cancer, they said. Some sort of leukemia that ate away at her body like a woodborer munching on old furniture. I’d stared at her as she walked by my locker, then looked away, looked anywhere except at the rainbow patchwork headscarf covering her bare scalp. She shone with such radiance, blazing like a small sun, so bright that my eyes teared. She’d turned and met my gaze. And smiled.
And never smiled at me again.
Aimee had made it back to school for only a single day. The next morning, Mr. Freeman addressed the class, his voice soft and subdued, as if a loud voice would be disrespectful.
Aimee had died during the night.
That day I knew for sure. I’d lost control of my tears then. They fell in huge, mocking drops. I stared at Joshua through those bitter tears, my heart missing beats as I tried to remember to breathe.
I finally knew what the glow meant.
I was a freak and Joshua was going to die.