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I cast it off. This was the first time I’d ever felt such happiness, such hopefulness about my life. About me. My future.

What could happen? One night. What could possibly go wrong?

Chapter 17

I arrived at the Materas’ fifteen minutes early, as usual. Elise said, “Wow, you look nice.” She ushered me inside, scanning me from head to toe. “You’ve done something different. What is it? Your hair?”

“Yeah, I got it cut. Just the ends.”

“Where do you go? I need a trim. Last time I went to the Mane Event, they butchered me.”

“Um . . . ,” I stalled. What could I say? Chez Luna? “A friend did it.”

“Really? She’s good.” Elise turned me around in a circle. “Tell her if she wants to expand her client base, I’d be happy to pay.”

“I will.” Like that’d ever happen.

Elise said, “David has a pager now, so I added that number to the speed dial.” David appeared behind her, proffering her coat, and she slipped it on. “We’ll be back by eleven-thirty, at the latest. I bought you some NoDoz. They’re on top of the refrigerator.” Elise smiled. “That was a joke.”

She didn’t sound like she was joking. “I won’t fall asleep. I promise.”

“Make sure you lock the door,” David said.

I always locked the door. They knew that.

Elise rattled off the particulars: Where they’d be, what there was to eat, blah, blah, blah. It took forever. Just go! I screamed inside. Get out of here.

Finally, through my peephole in the window blinds, I watched their Ford Explorer back down the driveway. “Can we watch Monsters, Inc.?” Cody shoved the DVD at me.

“Sure.” I followed Cody and Mirelle to the TV and sat cross-legged between them, which wasn’t easy in the tight jeans Luna had forced me to wear. They were white, the only white thing I owned. Why did she insist I wear white?

The movie dragged on interminably. I kept looking at my wrist, which was dumb because I’d forgotten to wear my watch. I did brush my teeth, I think. Finally, the outtakes at the end.

I scrabbled to my feet. “Okay, time for bed.”

“Already?” Cody and Mirelle whined. Mirelle added, “We didn’t even get our snack.”

“You can eat it in bed,” I said.

They widened eyes at each other. “All right!” Cody cheered.

Elise would kill me for letting them have food in bed. Oh, well. I might not live through this night, anyway. Mirelle and Cody hustled to their rooms. The baby was out cold in my arms, sleeping like a lamb. I put him down first. As I was digging out a couple of Rice Krispie treats from the pan in the kitchen, the front doorbell rang.

“Shit,” I hissed. The oven clock read eight-twenty. I was running late.

“I’ll get it,” Cody’s voice echoed from the back.

“No!” I hollered.

He flew past me, his footsteps thundering down the hall. I caught up as Cody flung open the front door.

“Uh, hi,” Liam greeted him. His eyes raised to meet mine.

“You’re early,” I said.

“I am?” Liam checked his watch.

Cody asked, “Who are you?”

Liam answered, “The tooth fairy. You can’t tell anybody you saw me because no one knows what I look like. And if you don’t get back to bed right now, I can never come back here and leave you money under your pillow. Fairy rules.”

Cody gasped. He blinked once, then pivoted and raced back down the hall. His bedroom door slammed.

I snorted. “Where’d you come up with that one?”

“I read it in your fairy handbook.”

I smacked his chest. Back in the kitchen, I resumed dishing up treats and delivering them to the kids; tucking them in; kissing them goodnight. Mirelle wanted me to read her a story. I told her not tonight. I told her she could wear her earplugs and listen to music. Which was also against the rules. Oh well. Tonight I was playing by fairy rules.

When I returned to the living room, Liam was curled on the sofa, reading a paperback. I said, “If they get up, just ...I don’t know. Tell them you’re the boogeyman.”

Liam made a face. “I’ll hypnotize them. Erase their memories. They’ll never know I was here.”

“Sometimes Tyler wakes up if he gets too hot. Check on him occasionally, okay? His diapers and stuff are on his bureau in the bedroom. If you can do it without waking her up, take out Mirelle’s earplugs. The emergency numbers are on the speed dial and to use it, you just punch —”

“I think I can figure out the phone,” Liam cut in.

“I borrowed Aly’s cell for tonight, so if anything happens —”

“Nothing’s going to happen.”

Through the window slats, car lights illuminated the living room. “There he is.”

Liam dogeared the page in his book and stood.

“I’m going to hurl.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.” My stomach twisted and growled. “I can’t do this. I’m sick. Really.”

“Calm down.” Liam clenched my shoulders. “You’ll be fine.” He bent down to kiss my cheek. “Have a good time, Re.”

The doorbell buzzed and I bolted. Or would have if Liam hadn’t secured me with a stronghold to the hardwood floor. He steered me to the foyer. My arms were paralyzed at my sides, so he had to reach around me to open the front door.

“Hi,” he said to Chris.

“Hey, I know you.” Chris waggled a finger at him. “Tryouts, right?”

Liam stiffened.

I freaked. They knew each other?

“Right,” Liam said in his deepest voice. He shoved me across the threshold.

“Did you make the team?” Chris asked, goosenecking over my head.


“Oh. Sorry, man.”

I turned and glared at Liam. He shrugged like, Hey, I didn’t know. “I’ll be home by eleven at the latest,” I said between clenched teeth. “The very latest.”

Liam smiled. “Just have fun.” Leaning closer so Chris wouldn’t hear, he added, “He is a hottie.” Liam shut the door in my face.

Chris said, “You got your brother to baby-sit? What did you have to do, bribe him?”

“Totally. I sold my soul,” I said.

Chris grimaced.

“No, it’s okay. It’ll be worth it.” Why’d I say that? I was saying too much.

A slow smile spread across his face. Checking me out under the porch light, he said, “You look awesome.”

My brain sent the signal to act cool, but the nervous system was experiencing widespread shutdown.

“This party’s like halfway to Montana.” Chris reached for my hand. “We better get going.”

I took one step off the porch and plunged to my death — literally. My foot hit a patch of ice and sent me flying. Unfortunately, Chris was attached to my hand and came with me. His momentum carried him past my stooped-over butt to a shoveled pile of slush on the lawn, where he took a header.

Chris’s rear arced in the air and he staggered to his feet. Brushing himself off, he cursed under his breath. The entire length of his front was soaked.

“Oh my God.” My hands flew to my face. Standing there like a defective CD, I kept repeating it: “OhmyGodohmyGod-ohmyGod.” I prayed a sinkhole would open up and suck me whole.

“Crap,” Chris muttered, shaking slush off his pants.

My fingers were fused to my face. “I’m sorry,” I whimpered. “I’m so sorry.”

“What are you sorry about? I’m the spaz.” He examined his wet shirt. “We’ll have to make a pit stop so I can change. Do you mind?”

Couldn’t he see I was mindless? I skittered behind him to his car in the driveway.

His car closely resembled the VW Dad had thought Liam would treasure forever. It was a rebuilt junker — a mishmash of doors and fenders and hoods — only bigger. Tanklike.

I was reminded again of the day Liam drove home his brand-spanking new Spyder convertible. Dad’s resentment had extended to me. He wouldn’t even consider buying me a car when I turned sixteen. He told Liam to share. Get real. I’d had my driver’s license a month already and Liam had let me drive around the block, once.

Chris opened the door for me, and I was hit with a gust of fire wind. The car was idling, the heater on extreme high. Chris slid in on his side and said, “If I turn the car off, I’ll never get it started again. I’m charging the battery.”

I nodded like, naturally. I’d dressed in layers on top, about six of them, mostly because I couldn’t decide. None of the out-fits Luna picked out were me. As in drab glam. I mean, what went with white? I figured, Wear everything that isn’t stained, smelly, or holey. At the rave I’d check out the appropriate garb and strip down. “Good heater.” I turned to Chris, panting.

“Yeah, it’s about the only thing that works in this heap.” He ground into gear and the car lurched backward. “Something’s funky with the fan, though.” He smacked the dashboard. “I think it’s stuck.”

Stuck on category five hurricane. Globules of sweat beaded on my forehead. Luna had spent an hour on my makeup and now my skin was melting wax. “Mind if I crack a window?” I asked.

I didn’t wait for an answer, just grabbed the handle and cranked. The window glass dropped like lead, disappearing inside the door frame.

Chris stopped fighting with the gear stick and twisted his head slowly. “Wow,” he said. “That never happened before.”

Melt, I ordered my whole entire body. Melt away.

Chris popped the clutch and backfired down the street.

As we drove, frigid air blasted me through the open window. One side of my face was frozen solid, while the other side fried eggs. Chris merged onto the highway, and since he had to compete with the whole outdoors now, shouted at me, “What kind of music do you like?”

“Opera,” I shouted back.

He threw back his head and howled. “You really are a scream,” he said.

I smiled weakly.

“Here, play whatever you want.” He reached into the back seat and retrieved a CD case.

Make that a suitcase. It must’ve contained every CD ever recorded. Plus, it had a trick lock — a weird contraption you either had to press or pull or bite off with your teeth. I wrestled with it for like, ten minutes. When I glanced over, Chris was looking at me. Smirking.

“If you say one word about how unmechanical girls are . . .”

His eyes gleamed. “Try the button.”

“The button.” Duh. I pressed it and the latch popped open. About eight hundred CDs sprang into the air.

He should drive off a cliff and put me out of his misery, I thought. “Sorry,” I mumbled as I crouched to the floor to scoop all the CDs back into the case. I was going to mention the invention of plastic sleeves to organize his collection, but decided now was not the time to reveal my nagging mother instinct. On my way up, the crack of skull carried over the wind as my head crunched the dash.

Chris must’ve heard my yelp because he screeched to a stop. The car fishtailed over the curb, jerking me fully upright and impaling my head against the headrest. Add whiplash to my concussion.

“You okay?” He gaped at me.

“This is going well, don’t you think?” I said.

He didn’t laugh. Neither did I. I felt like crying. If I did, though, my mascara would run and stain my white jeans.

At some point, probably while I was crawling around on the floor stacking CDs, we’d exited the highway. The curb we straddled was in a war zone: boarded-up windows along an entire block of charred row houses. I bent to retrieve a couple of CDs I’d missed, which were now crushed under my foot.

“Sorry.” I winced an apology at Chris.

“We’ll just sing,” he said.

Was that a joke? Did he smirk? How could he laugh at a time like this? Unless he was laughing at me. Which he had to be. I was a joke. A study in slapstick.

“Don’t worry about it.” Chris reached over, took the CDs from my hand, and flung them out the window. Then he clipped my jaw with a knuckled fist. A sweet gesture, like he knew how I was feeling.

“If you take me back now, you might still get out of this alive,” I told him.

He laughed. Really laughed. It made me laugh, and feel better. He popped the clutch and we hurtled the median.

A few minutes later we pulled up in front of a house. A four-plex. There was a truck parked ahead of us, one of those eighteen-wheeler cabs. “Shit,” Chris hissed under his breath. “Denny’s back. He wasn’t supposed to get home until tomorrow.” He explained, “My mom’s boyfriend. He’s a jerk. He thinks he owns me or something.” Chris drummed the steering wheel. “Okay, here’s the plan. You stay here. I’ll run in and grab a pair of jeans; hope him and Mom are too busy getting reacquainted to notice me. If you hear a shot, call 911.”

My eyes bulged. He was kidding, right?

He eased open the car door and climbed out, then sprinted up the gravel driveway and in through a side door. It was dead quiet except for a dog barking down the block. No shots rang out. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. Chris tore out the door with this hulk of a guy chasing him, bellowing, “Come back here, you twerp. Who do you think you are? I’m talking to you, punk.”

Chris yanked open his door and threw a wad of denim at me. We pulled away from the curb just as The Hulk reached us, smashing a fist down on the trunk. It made me yelp, and shrivel in fear.

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