My dreams are never normal. In fact, one might say they're oddly specific in their weirdness. It only fits, I guess, because God knows my upbringing hasn't exactly been what you might call ordinary. Why else would I dream about playing a nonexistent Pac-Man video game? And not a very nice one, either.
First, I have to navigate the little yellow dude through an intensely complicated maze. Then, when I've gotten him to eat every pellet, I have to get my character to the far corner, where a chain of pellets waits to fly him to safety, and past a number of multicolored bare trees surrounded by blackness.
Unfortunately, as soon as he lands on a little seaside dock in broad daylight, Pac-Man is swarmed by these green-and-purple things, like land-based sea urchins, and with creepy puppet-like smiles fixed on their faces, they drag him to a big bucket of water and hold his head under until I hear the "sorry, you're dead!" sound effect.
The worst part is, the whole thing is viewed as if the camera were at the bottom of the bucket, looking straight up for the most up-close-and-personal view possible as Pac-Man writhes around, struggling in vain to free himself from these...things.
I think it's perfectly clear why this game doesn't exist in real life.
I wake up at this point to serious numbness in my back. That's weird - I never sleep on my back. And I definitely don't sleep on the couch in the lounge, but then here I am. I only figure this out when I roll over and fall off the couch with a loud thud. If that doesn't wake up everyone in the building, I don't know what will.
And, adding to the strangeness of the situation, I'm wearing yesterday's jeans. Which I could have sworn I took off last night before going under the covers of my bed. In my dorm room.
I scramble to my feet, getting instant head rush. As I sit down, I feel that numbness again, and I realize I'm sitting on my wings. They're unfurled, but hanging limply out of the bottom of my T-shirt (which, incidentally, depicts the first level of a certain classic arcade game whose name I have already mentioned. Which might explain my bizarro nightmare.)
I sit up again and retract my wings before stretching them again. They pass through the long slits in the back of my shirt, reaching their full thirteen-foot span. Pulling them back into place on either side of my spine, I sit on the couch, then lean down to pick up a stray dark-brown feather.
Behind me, the door to the boys' dorms opens up. I turn around and see my roommate, Luca Passeri, emerging into the lounge. He catches sight of me and whispers, "Did it happen again?"
I get off the couch and walk over to Luca. "Yep," I say with a heavy sigh.
Luca frowns at me, looking concerned. "That's the second time in a week, isn't it?"
I reach the door and follow him down the hall to our room. "Third, actually."
"I only counted two," Luca says, opening the door to our room.
"Saturday morning," I say. "I got back to the room before you woke up, though."
I peel off my shirt and pants, toss them onto my pillow, and go into the closet to grab my pale blue uniform shirt. In the meantime, wearing nothing but boxers, I'm shivering. It's cold up here in the mountains at seven in the morning on October 27th. It doesn't help that I was born and bred in the Bay Area, in a town only known for Kristi Yamaguchi, Len Wiseman, and being a Terminator 2 filming location. So I'm not quite used to the idea of frigid winters.
Even though you've spent most of the last two years up here? Luca thinks.
Yep, I think back. Even though my name is Snow, I'm not really meant for the polar weather. Before putting on my shirt, I extend my wings a bit, examining my reflection in the mirror on the inside of the closet door. I've always liked the way my wings catch the light. They're dark brown, just like my hair, but every four or five feathers I get one that's a light tan color.
"Alex?" Luca stands next to me, waving his hand in front of my face. "You kinda zoned out for a moment there. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Hmm?" I look around, startled, and realize I'm blocking the way to the closet. "Oh. Sorry." I edge aside so Luca can go in and get his own uniform. As I put on the rest of my uniform - black slacks, shoes, and blazer - I mentally curse our limited storage space. At least Luca isn't a total slob like my brother, though, so it's not really so bad.
And whoo hoo, speak of the Devil. My phone, which I've just barely managed to turn on, vibrates and starts playing the opening piano riff from Muse's "New Born." There's only one person who calls me at this time of morning. Rolling my eyes, I swipe my thumb across the screen to accept the call.
"'Morning, bro," I say with an exaggerated yawn.
"You cheeky bastard," answers my brother. "How's it hanging?"
Luca perks up briefly as he puts on his own uniform shirt. "Hey, Gabe," he says, before turning back to the mirror.
"Luca says hi," I say. "All right, what do you wanna sell me today?"
I can almost hear the stupid grin in Gabe's voice as he answers. "I got another great setup for tonight. You get your ass down to the Bridge by five, and just...let the sparks fly."
I sigh in exasperation. "Dude. Not another blind date. I'm not in the mood."
"What kind of mood would that be?"
"Um...blind-date-y?" I move over to the window and peek out beyond the curtain at the pale blue sunrise, trying as always to picture Castledown on the hillside across the creek. Too bad it's invisible from this side of the water.
Gabe chuckles. "You gotta work on your comebacks. Trust me, Alex, you'll really like this one."
"That's what you said the last ten times you set me up with a Castledown girl." Out of the corner of my eye, I see Luca raise his eyebrow at me.
"It's gotta work sometime," Gabe says. "Unless...?"
"What?" My mind immediately moves into territory I don't really care to chart. "Oh God, no."
Gabe starts laughing uproariously for some reason. "You don't wanna find a nice girl from Balthazar? Really?"
"Is that what you meant?"
"Wh-what did you think I meant?" Gabe stutters as he tries to catch his breath.
I sigh again, this time in a more relieved way. "You know what."
"Well, do you wanna find a girl from your own school?" Gabe asks. "I dunno what passes for hotness with you guys, though, so I can't help you there."
"Pretty much what passes for hotness with you guys, too," I say. "And while we're at it, why is it that you pretty much concentrate on looks? That's not really enough for me. I want a girl who's not only pretty, but smart and cool as well."
"Great," Gabe says, snapping his fingers. "Would you like a short skirt and a long jacket with that?"
"Funny." It actually is, but only because I actually get the admittedly out-there alt-rock reference.
Gabe laughs again. "In all honesty, dude, you shouldn't be such a straight arrow all the time. Live a little, you know what I mean?"
"Yeah. Sure. Live a little, die a lot."
"Spoilsport." Gabe sighs breezily. "Three Guys, five tonight, bro. Don't be late. I'm telling you, this girl really is the one for you."
"You know I don't believe you, right?"
Gabe hangs up without another word. "Polite, my dear sainted brother is not," I say.
Luca frowns as he takes a small portable brush, the kind my mom keeps in the glove box in her car, to his thick, curly hair. "Hey, he's only trying to help."
"Well, you try getting blind date after blind date with demon girls and then we'll talk," I say, putting my phone to sleep.
I've always wondered how it is that I'm able to get phone calls from Hell, because I'm pretty sure my wireless service wasn't meant to include interdimensional contact. Gabe once told me that there were a lot of phone numbers that had different owners in different worlds, and that every time someone got a wrong number, it was because some idiot demon wasn't concentrating hard enough and connected to Earth instead of Hell. He says that it's happened to him before, when he tries to call me and accidentally calls the human with the same phone number as me. I wouldn't know, because he's always the one who calls me, not the other way around, so I've never really had a chance to figure it out for myself.
As soon as Luca is fully dressed, he closes the closet and approaches the door to the hallway outside. Before opening it up, however, he turns to me and asks, "Does Gabe know? That you've been sleepwalking?"
I shake my head. "I've got enough people worrying about me, thanks."
"You can never have too many people worrying about you, dude," Luca says. "And I'm sorry to ask you again, but are you sure everything's fine?"
"I'm all right," I say. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"You, uh, kinda forgot your tie?" Luca hands me my tie - black with thin green stripes, just like his. Which he's remembered to put on.
"Shit, you're right," I mutter. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," Luca says as I take the tie.
"Where would I be without you, eh, buddy?"
"Probably in the wrong universe," Luca chuckles. He grabs his laptop from the bedside table while I put my tie on. I could probably do with tying it up a bit more neatly, but then it's still just after seven, an hour and a half before our first class. I have a lot more time to fix it up.
Finally, we leave our room. Other guys shuffle sleepily down the corridor towards the lounge, where we're joined by equally sleepy, shuffly girls. Most of them are wearing their standard Balthazar Academy uniforms - hey, it's a boarding school. At least we're only forced to wear them during class, otherwise I might have blown this Popsicle stand ages ago. Constricting conformism aside, one of the strongest selling points about this place is how many privileges and perks they allow their students - freedom to explore the nearby town of Coldfire Creek every evening and weekend, a monthly allowance of one hundred dollars per student (more if you can get a job somewhere on campus), etc.
While we pass through the lounge, I stop to look at the couch on which I woke up. Like all the other furniture in the room, it's dark green and squishy with age and continuous usage. The place looks like it could be a Hogwarts common room - it's got the color scheme of Slytherin, and the inviting atmosphere of Gryffindor.
Still, though, almost nobody sleeps in here. Unless they're pulling an all-nighter, like a pair of brainy sophomores I spot in a pair of armchairs in the corner, snoozing with their lethally large, throw-it-with-great-force calculus books splayed open on their laps. Poor guys.
A few minutes later, we're downstairs and coming up to the dining hall. Luca detours into the door leading up to the booth over the entrance, where the mealtime soundtracks are provided. Normally, the DJ plays the sort of awful, overplayed pop crap I hate - Maroon 5, Katy Perry, and Sam Smith are particular favorites. But every Monday at breakfast time, they have someone else step into the booth as a guest DJ, and these are most often the sort of people who don't want to adhere to the music industry's status quo. I've signed myself up to be a guest DJ, but the waiting list is about two months long. My time will come next week, supposedly.
This week, though, it's Luca's turn, and as soon as he gets into the booth, he plugs his laptop into the sound equipment and starts playing his first pick of the morning - an old favorite of mine, "I Write Sins, Not Tragedies" by Panic! At The Disco. Feeling a little cheered up, I step into line to collect breakfast from the buffet, choosing waffles topped with raspberries. Behind me, a pair of senior girls pick out pancakes and drown them in syrup, then take their seats at the next table and look up at the DJ booth hopefully. Upon seeing who's up there today, one of the girls, a relatively tall one with auburn hair, blinks in surprise, then her face falls with perfect comic precision.
I should've known this would be Luca's mission. He's got a major hard-on for that redhead - and why not? Dani Cabrera is a very pretty young thing. She's no Emma Stone or Scarlett Johansson, but hey, those legs, especially with those red-and-black-striped tights she wears in her spare time...she even had me drooling for a while after she first came here at the start of the year, only two months ago. I quickly gave up on her, though, because it didn't take long to figure out Dani was a prickly character with no patience for "romantic tomfoolery" (her words, not mine). I've strongly advised Luca to do the same, but I'm reasonably certain my words have gone in one brain and out the other.
When the Panic! song ends, Luca grabs the mike and starts speaking into it. I can almost see the gleam in his wide brown eyes as he animatedly chatters away while swiping the mouse pad on his laptop so he can pick his next song.
"Hey, hey, Balthazar, this is Luca Passeri. Some of you might know me, others not so much. But no matter. Happy Monday to all of you, and if you're still asleep, too bad, because I'm gonna keep you on your toes this morning. I have no plans for the soundtrack to your breakfast, other than shuffling my iTunes library and playing it in whatever order I like!" He pauses and looks at the screen. "This one goes out to the one I love - even though it's not that particular song. Whatever. Hope you like it, babe! Enjoy!"
Luca presses play on his second song of the day. Again, it's something I like (which gets me wondering, is this meant to appeal to Dani or to me?) Strangely, it's one of the few popular songs I like, so everyone else around me seems much more enthused about the song choice this time. Still, though, it seems a tad bit...inappropriate for school.
I overhear Dani's friend, a blonde girl with a white beanie whose name I don't really know, as she voices this exact same sentiment. Was she listening in on my thoughts? I wonder. Dani gives an incoherent, noncommittal grunt in reply. Then, as soon as Pink starts singing the chorus line, Dani obeys her command and raises her glass - but she holds on to the glass in such a way that she can show Luca her upraised middle finger.
I suspect he's watching the crowd to see her reaction, and since we all sit at tables grouped by class (by choice, not by design), it shouldn't take him too long to find her. Lo and behold, he does, and right away he responds with what can only be described as the most sickening "Oh golly gee!" gesture this side of a Disney movie.
"Is he trying to be funny?" Dani asks her friend in sheer exasperation. Her friend's only response is to raise her eyebrows. Hers are pretty impressive, mostly because they're dark brown, entirely at odds with her hair of gold.
"And here I thought we'd be able to make it through breakfast without talking about the boy, but whatevs," her friend says. "Admit it already, you like Luca. And why not? He's cute, he's funny-"
"Hah! Funny? In what messed-up universe?"
I don't hear any more of this conversation, because by this point I've gotten up, left my plate with the other dirty dishes in the corner, and crammed the last pieces of my last waffle all the way into my mouth. I leave the room just as Pink's song ends and another begins - "Lonely Boy," by the Black Keys. Your personal theme song, Luca? I think, even though he can't possibly hear my thoughts through the wall. Can he?
I walk back through the lounge and go back to my room for my notebooks. Stopping to adjust my tie, I stare at my reflection again. My eyes are bloodshot and ringed with dark circles. I've been really worried lately because of my recent sleepwalking issues. My mom says I used to do it when I was younger, but not since I was eight. I think I somehow made myself stop after the time I got up late at night, mistook the new CD player Gabe and I had just gotten for our birthday for a toilet, and pissed on it.
Right now, though, I have no easy way to explain my problem. No unnecessary schoolwork stress - I'm doing a pretty good job keeping up with all my classes and maintaining a three-point-something GPA. No relationship issues, since I'm still single, despite Gabe's best efforts.
So what's wrong with me? Is it something hiding in my subconscious?
Before I can think too much about it, though, my watch alarm goes off, snapping me back to reality. Shutting it off, I quickly use my hands to try and brush some of my hair out of my eyes. I really should get a haircut soon. The school doesn't make us guys have any kind of super-short regulation haircut - for which I'm grateful, because I don't like the way short hair looks on me - but after letting it grow for six months, my hair's become really messy and shaggy.
Hey, maybe that's my problem, I think to myself as I head back out. I'm sleepwalking 'cause I look like a frigging wolf-man. And it's messing with my self-esteem, so it makes me-
My thoughts stop as I hear a short but loud, almost girlish scream coming from a nearby open door. Walking faster, I stop to check the name tag on the door - "M. Passeri/S. Walker."
"Marco?" I call out, poking my head around the door. "What's up?"
Luca's older brother Marco whirls around, his face pale. "Oh, hey, Snow," he says, looking more than a bit flustered. "Uh, it's nothing. Just got, uh, one of those, you know, jump-scare videos from Steve."
"Really?" I ask. "Could I see it? Maybe it's the same one my brother sent me the other day."
Marco looks around, realizing too late that his phone is actually sitting on the bedside table, well out of his reach. "Yeah, you got me. But Steve did scare me for real."
"Did he?" I ask, taking a quick look around the room. There's no sign of Marco's roommate - unless you count the sight of a model of his head sitting on his bed, cushioned by a pile of gym clothes. "Whoa," I say, bending down to pick it up. "That's gross."
"I know, right?" Marco says. "They've really outdone themselves on this one."
Steve Walker's family owns a movie makeup business down in LA, and they make really lifelike stuff for the school to use as Halloween decorations each year. Marco's right - this model has to be their best creation yet. But it's disturbingly realistic, maybe even more so than usual. It's got so much attention to detail. Like the freckles on his nose, the tiny blackheads on his chin, and the fragments of blackened skin hanging in thin tatters from the bottom, as if Steve really did get his head cut off by a lightsaber or a flaming axe or something.
Marco shakes his head as he looks at the fake head again. "I'm gonna need to give him a piece of my mind."
"Anything to save your reputation, right?" I laugh, clapping Marco on the shoulder. "Don't worry, though. If it gets out that you scream like a girl, it won't be 'cause I told anyone."
"Especially not Luca, right?" Marco asks me.
I give him a comically-serious nod. "Of course I won't tell Luca. But I'm sure he already knows. He's had to live with you all his life, hasn't he?"
Marco laughs wryly. "Good point, Snow. Now, where's the box this thing came in...?" He kicks around the bedspreads on both his and Steve's beds before looking underneath them, then pokes into the closet. "Huh. No box. And that's really weird, too, that he'd just leave it under his shorts like that."
I look at the nest of gym clothes. "Does he usually leave his clothes laying around? I can't imagine you'd tolerate any roommate of yours doing that."
"I can barely tolerate it from Luca at home," Marco says. "But only 'cause he's my brother."
"Someone say my name?" Luca asks, sticking his head through the door.
"It's, uh, it's nothing," Marco says hurriedly, moving to the side so he can block the fake head from view.
Luca, of course, has no trouble spotting a lie from his brother. Raising his eyebrow at Marco, he peers around him and sees the head. "Whoa! Get a load of that!" He laughs, pointing at the head, then turns to Marco and asks, "You screamed like a girl, didn't you? When Steve showed you?"
"He didn't show me," Marco says, crossing his arms. "I just found it there."
"Yeah, no wonder you screamed," Luca says, holding his laptop to his chest and trying to contain his bursts of laughter. "Come on, Alex, we gotta get to History."
"What? Oh yeah. I totally forgot. See you later, Marco."
"See you, Snow." Marco smiles and waves as Luca and I leave the dorm wing.
"Isn't forgetfulness a sign of sleep deprivation or something?" Luca asks.
The snicker he adds after finishing his sentence makes it sound like he's not totally serious at the moment, so I decide to run with that when I say, "Shit, I dunno. Ask me again after I take Psych next year."
"I won't have to," Luca says as we go into the main hallway and make tracks for our History class, which is on the other side of the third floor. As we bypass the big staircase (it's not quite big enough to be called "grand"), he adds, "I thought I'd take it with you."
"Why didn't you take it this year again?" I ask, even though I already know the answer.
Luca, who's fond of explaining this story at any opportunity, grins and says, "'Cause if I did, I'd end up in the same class as Marco, and he'd show me up and make me look like a dumbass every day."
I laugh along with him, then add a friendly barb to make this conversation different from the hundred or so times we've run through it before. "Hey, just 'cause you can't beat him at Jeopardy!..."
"I've got my strength," Luca says, flexing his biceps, "and Marco's got his."
"True," I say, heading into the classroom. Sadly, at this point, our conversation is forced to end as the bell rings and class begins.
"Did you give Steve the chewing-out he deserves?" I ask Marco as Luca and I get back to the lounge after all our classes are over for the day.
Marco looks up and sighs as Luca sits next to him on the couch. "No. I haven't seen him all day, actually."
Luca chuckles. "He knows what's coming to him, doesn't he?"
"Yeah, that's why I haven't seen him, I bet," Marco laughs. "He's trying to avoid me."
"I'm sure if we go to your room right now, he'll be cowering in the closet," Luca says. "Alex, aren't you gonna sit with us?"
"Would if I could, dude, but I gotta go," I say, pointing behind me at the door to the boys' dorms.
"Wait, what time's your date again?"
Marco smiles at me, making me feel a bit embarrassed. "Another blind date, huh? I don't know why you keep doing that, Snow. Fool you once, shame on your demon brother. Fool you twenty times-"
"Ten," I correct him. "That's how many girls my brother's tried to set me up with."
"You sure it's only been ten?" Luca asks. "I think it's been at least fifteen by now."
"Trust me," I say, rubbing my eyes, "I've kept count of all the failures. It's been ten, and tonight will be number eleven."
Luca shakes his head. "You don't have a lot of faith in this one, do you?"
"Not really, no."
"But you still don't have to leave just yet, right?" Luca asks again. "These dates of yours are usually not till five or six, right?"
"I know, but as long as I got a couple hours to kill, I figure I should hit the pool. Before my bloody gills close up, you know?" I ask, glad as always for an opportunity to use the Hellish swear I picked up from Gabe. (Apparently, on Earth, there's a huge demonic ex-pat community in the UK, which is how "bloody" developed its reputation as a British expression.)
There's another possible reason for your sleep problems, Luca thinks, keeping it low to try and make sure Marco doesn't hear it. Out loud, he asks, "How long's it been since you went to the pool again?"
"Not since last weekend at least," I say. "You guys wanna come with?"
They both shake their heads, as I expect; angels usually don't like to swim. At least we have no trouble floating, because our bodies are less dense than those of demons or humans, but our wings are a bit of a hindrance in the water. Not at all hydrodynamic. Plus, they take forever to dry out. I, however, tend to feel a little more at home in the water. It's just one of the many things that makes me different from the others here at Balthazar, right down to the genetic level.
"Fair enough," I say. "Be back later."
I make my way through the crowded lounge and down the hall to my room. There, I go into the very far back of the closet and pull out the plastic bag containing my towel and trunks. Then, I change as quickly as I can into regular teenage threads - plaid flannel shirt over a Pink Floyd tee, gray jeans, well-aged black sneakers. When I'm done, I open the window, crouch on the sill, and jump out, spreading my wings through the slits in the backs of my shirts. I go back to close the window from the outside (I'll have to hope that Luca doesn't lock me out), and take off again, flying down over the steep mountainside to the town in the valley below.
It's a one-of-a-kind experience, flight. Especially on a nice day. The clouds that covered us this morning have mostly faded, revealing a shiny, pearly-white sky. It's bracingly cold, but I'm wrapped up in double layers, so it doesn't affect me too much. Plus, it feels a bit more exhilarating when it's cold. The air isn't so solid in all the wrong ways, and it's easier to cut through. It feels like tiny knives nicking me, that sort of "hurts-so-good" feeling. Normally, I like to fly only as far as the entrance to the school and walk the rest of the way, but today I feel the need to wake myself up a bit more, so I soar over the rooftops, skimming them with the toes of my Vans.
Finally, I touch down at the entrance to the Bridge. I gaze up at the large, ungainly-looking building, which arcs out over Coldfire Creek itself before embedding itself into the rock face on the other side. With its stack of boxy structures, it almost looks like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
I fold my wings up and hand my ID to the guy at the security checkpoint. He slides it through a modified credit-card scanner, consults his computer screen, then nods his approval as he returns my ID. The glass door next to the checkpoint opens, allowing me to climb the spiral staircase leading into the heart of the Bridge.
The Bridge is kinda like a combination of a community center and a shopping mall. Most of the restaurants and stores in town are here, and all the indoor parks-and-rec-type facilities, like the library, the yoga classes, and yes, the pool. To my delight, when I reach the top floor, I see a long hallway nearly devoid of any presence, be it angelic or demonic. That's the real reason why it's called the Bridge - not only because it's a literal one, but because it also includes a portal between Heaven and Hell. There are thousands of other Bridges, each connecting two of the three known dimensions, and all serving as neutral ground.
I glance up at the long skylight which spans the length of the top floor and watch as the sheer cliff that forms the southern bank of Coldfire Creek - at least, in Heaven - approaches. Soon, I pass through to the other side, and now the cliff is behind me, while above and ahead of me is an unbroken view of Hell's fiery red sky. From here, right on the boundary, I can almost see Gabe's school, Castledown Academy, perched on a mountainside to the south, looking so bizarrely identical to Balthazar Academy on the other side of the Bridge.
I enter the pool room and find it nearly deserted, except for two girls. One, who is practicing her backstroke, I recognize as Kelly Jackson, a girl whom Gabe dated for a month or so in freshman year. Before they fell apart, she was the only date he's brought home to meet Mom. Another girl, whom I don't know, is sitting in one of the many plastic chairs on the side, reading a book. By the time I change into my swimsuit, Kelly is already done and has left for the girls' locker room, while the other girl, probably her friend, continues to sit by herself and read. Looking closely, I see that she's reading a book called Beautiful Creatures. The name seems vaguely familiar to me, but I can't quite place it.
I look at the rows of targets placed high on the wall at one end of the room. Choosing one of them, I reach down into the chlorinated water, concentrating on my elemental power until I feel the familiar buzz. It feels like there's a bunch of electrified wires floating in the water around my hands, waiting to be shaped and controlled by my thoughts.
I pull up a sphere of water, about six inches in diameter, and lob it across the room, but completely miss my intended target. In my head, I hear a little buzzer noise as I mentally punish myself, and wonder what just happened. I'm not a perfect shot, but I at least manage to hit the right target every time. Maybe my concentration's a little off today. Wouldn't surprise me.
I gather up another ball of water and line up another shot, but while it's airborne, a blast of orange fire hits the water ball, causing it to explode in a huge cloud of steam.
"What the hell?" I curse, looking around to see where the fire could have come from. The only other person in the room is the girl in the chair. But she's still reading her book. What gives? I try another shot, only for it to be vaporized again. This time, I actually catch the girl putting down her book long enough to shoot a fireball from her hand.
"All right, what's your problem?" I ask angrily.
The girl closes her book and places it inside her satchel. Now I can get a good look at her. She pushes aside some of her shoulder-length black hair and gazes back at me with almond-shaped brown eyes. I assume she's a demon - again, angels don't usually come to the pool, unless they're water elementals like me. Since I'm seeing her from the front, however, I can't tell - the only real way to tell offhand is by looking at the shoulders from behind. Demons do have wings, but they're typically small, batlike, and vestigial, so they don't show underneath their shirts the way angels' wings do.
"Your aim sucks," the girl says. Her voice is a little on the husky side. "Hello?" she yells, snapping her fingers in my general direction after a few seconds of non-response from me. "I said, 'Your aim sucks!' And besides, I was bored. Happy?"
I glower at the girl and then take a moment to look at her book again - or at least the top of it, which is the only part I can see poking out of her satchel. It suddenly strikes me where I saw the name Beautiful Creatures before - on the package for a five-dollar DVD at Target. From there, I remember my sort-of idea of what the story was about. "Well, of course you got bored, reading that shitty paranormal romance book," I say.
"What would you know about shitty books, other than comics?"
I swipe the water, sending a sizable wave after the girl. She pulls her bag behind the chair and crouches down to stay dry. Then, she pops back up and retaliates with another fireball attack, this time directed straight at me, and I only manage to drop under the surface of the water just in time. As it is, my hands get scalded by the heat of the fireball's steaming-hot impact.
I rise out of the water and say, in perfect deadpan mode, "Ow."
The girl frowns as she picks up her satchel. "I don't wanna fight you, Feathers." Feathers? I think. Just 'cause I'm an angel? "It'd be too much of a shame to kick your pretty little ass."
She looks up as the locker room door opens and Kelly emerges, then she turns on her heel and sets off. I watch her go and see that she is, in fact, a demon, judging from how flat her back looks under her pink-striped black tee.
She stops just short of the door. "If I turn around and see you looking..."
"I'm not afraid of you," I challenge her. "But I don't wanna fight you. It'd be too much of a shame to kick your pretty little ass."
The girl turns around, meeting my defiant glare with one of her own. "Touché." She and her friend finally leave me alone in the pool.
I spend some time throwing more water balls, imagining each target to have this girl's face, and (despite my lack of distractions) still hitting them with only about forty percent accuracy. On the outside.
I wonder if Gabe knows her. She seems like exactly the sort of girl he'd try to set me up with - all looks and very little charm. She reminds me of Dani Cabrera, at least in terms of personality, but physically she's about as different from Dani as I am from Luca. Shorter, or at least average-sized, where Dani is taller. Curvy where Dani is slender. That kind of thing.
I spend another hour or so in the pool before finally getting out. My hands and feet are wrinkled beyond wrinkled, and I've burned so many calories practicing my elemental that I feel like I'm on the point of passing out. I stop at my locker and look at my reflection in the mirror inside the door, thinking about a number of things.
For one thing, the fact that I seem to like putting mirrors inside doors.
For another, my continued shock at how much different my body looks compared to my first day in this town, over two years ago. I've grown about eight inches taller since then, and I actually have muscle to speak of now - although, as Gabe jokingly tells me, I'm still nobody's stud muffin.
There is, however, one distinct detail about my body that I have to hide from others: the small scars on my upper arm. Two rows of half-inch cuts - one with ten, the other still incomplete with six. They shine a bright white when the light hits them at the right angle, but unless you're looking for them, they're really hard to spot.
When I was thirteen, after I'd cut the first of these scars, I made it a habit to never be shirtless for longer than ten seconds, to minimize the chance that anyone could see them. (That, plus the fact that back then, I was pretty self-conscious about my gangly, barely-pubescent bod.) Eventually, in January of freshman year, Luca spotted my scars by accident in the locker room after gym class. He at least had the good sense to not bring them up until we were safely closed off in our dorm room. Nevertheless, I immediately said, in a would-be casual voice, "I dunno what you're talking about, dude."
He let it go for the moment, but then several weeks later, in March, Luca grabbed my arm as I was putting on my uniform shirt. "Don't deny it again, Alex," he'd said, pointing to the scars - of which I'd had fifteen at that point. "I'm your friend, and I wanna know what's going on. Just trust me."
My friend? I'd thought. Nobody had ever called me a friend before. So, based on that alone, I trusted Luca, and opened up about myself - to an extent.
I told him that I was stressed because I had a mixed family and was too afraid to tell anyone about that - because angels, especially older angels, tend to frown upon that sort of thing. I told him that I didn't feel guilty when I had sexual thoughts and fantasies, the way I was apparently supposed to. (That one got a nice chuckle out of Luca, who admitted to the same exact feeling, and added that as far as he was aware, it was perfectly normal behavior for young males, regardless of species.) I told him that I'd never known my father, because he was literally just an anonymous sperm donor. (That one didn't get a chuckle out of Luca at all.) I told him that, long story short, I just felt so sick of myself at times that I'd just go into the woods behind the school, fly up to the top of a tree, and cut myself, letting the blood and tears flow freely where nobody could see me.
Of course, none of those reasons fully explain my cutting. And the last one - the details of where and how I do it - is a lie. The truth is way more unique and personal than that. Gabe is the only other person who knows - because he has an identical set of scars on his own arm. In fact, he was the one who started cutting first.
I'd be surprised if there weren't more young angels like myself engaging in self-harm. We're under a lot of pressure to be moral examples for humans and demons to follow, as they keep telling us in school (not that they ever would, of course), and I know I can't be the only one who's ever cracked. Cutting only compounds the situation, because it's considered selfish, and therefore shameful. I sure as hell don't wanna admit to it. Not every angel is as understanding as Luca. Or as good at making light of the matter in the wrongest of right ways.
After I shower and change, I return to school to drop my swim stuff off down the laundry chute (Luca hasn't locked me out, thankfully). With forty-five minutes until my date, when I get back to the Bridge, I decide to stop at Smythe and Darknell Books. At the café, I order a mocha from Mrs. Smythe, then spend a while browsing the YA shelves in the bookstore itself.
I peruse the latest installment of Darren Shan's Zom-B series, but I don't really retain much information from it - I'm so wired that I blow through the roughly 160-page book in ten minutes.
Out of curiosity, I take another look at Beautiful Creatures, and realize that perhaps it isn't as bad as I had previously thought. I find myself very much engaged by the protagonist, a dude named Ethan who knows full well that he's an outcast in a backwater Southern hick town and wants nothing more than to get his ass outta Dodge, ASAP. Too bad he doesn't really seem to have any idea what he'd do when he leaves, unlike his buddy Link, who drives a broken-down old Beater (no, seriously, that's what he calls it - the Beater) and makes shitty garage-band music with which he hopes to one day be a rock star. Then Ethan's falling in love with a girl whom he's only seen in nightmares, and there's a freaky-sounding song called "Sixteen Moons" that appears on his iPod out of nowhere...
Okay, I'm officially hooked. The book is almost six hundred pages long, and I almost get through one of those hundreds before my watch alarm beeps. It's quarter to five, so I need to get to Three Guys Pizza Pies right away.
I carry the book up to the checkstand and buy it. The tanned, curved-nosed girl at the cash register - Jeanne Darknell, the college-age daughter of one of the co-owners - examines the cover, her lips moving as she reads the intricately curled purple lettering of the title. "You know, I've never seen any boys reading this book," she says.
"But the main character is a boy," I point out. "Shouldn't that be enough?"
"How much have you read so far?" I open the book up to the page I left off on. "Hmm. Have fun, then. There's three more after this, plus a spin-off with Ridley and Link."
"Who's Ridley?" I ask.
Jeanne laughs and says, "Spoilers," in a musical voice worthy of River Song.
"Thanks," I say, tucking the book under my arm.
I set off for Three Guys, which is located on the Hell side of the Bridge (the bookstore is on the Heaven side), and place my order. It's the same as usual - a large pie with sausage, tomatoes, and basil. I sit at one of the tables in the dining room, waiting for the pizza and my blind date to arrive. Five o'clock comes and goes and the pizza gets to my table, but no demon girl. Figures - demons like to be fashionably late.
In the meantime, I open my new book and continue reading. Soon, I come across the Ridley character Jeanne told me about - a dangerously attractive ("Third Degree Burns," as Link puts it), seriously bitchy one in sunglasses, driving a Mini Cooper and sucking down a red lollipop at all times. This one ends up with Link somehow? I think. Man, I feel so bad for him. This girl seems like a real piece of work.
"Okay, now you're just trolling, Feathers," says a slightly husky voice. I nearly drop Beautiful Creatures in surprise as I see my date sitting on the other side of the table, one eyebrow cocked at me. Even if she hadn't used that dumbass nickname, I would've had no problem figuring out who she was - the girl who tried to set me on fire.
I groan loudly and dramatically. Why am I not surprised?
I slump in my seat, cross my arms, and look down at the pizza plate as I mutter, "I seriously have to ask, what have I done to deserve this?"
The girl takes a slice of pizza and munches off the tip before responding. "Hmm. Let's see. You've thrown a gallon or ten of water at me. You've said I read a shitty book, but then the next time I see you, you're reading the same book yourself, and very clearly enjoying it. And here I thought you angels were all emotionless, un-fun, unfailingly polite robots."
I look up, rolling my eyes. "I'm not like other angels."
"Yeah. Your brother's a demon, so clearly you're not all one hundred percent angel. Maybe you're not so boring after all." The girl smiles for a moment before knitting her eyebrows at me again.
"I bet you demanded a million bucks before you would agree to do this," I say. "Or did Gabe offer you more?"
"He didn't pay me anything," says the girl. "I'm doing this because Gabe said he's got a brother who's lonely and wants a date, but he's too scared to come out of his shell and ask girls out himself."
I nod as I take a bite of pizza. "Yeah. You got me summed up right there. So now you know me. What about yourself? No, no, wait, don't tell me. Um, you're a harsh, snarky demon girl who likes dicking around with random people, and you have no patience for shy introverts who won't come out of their shells."
"But if that were the case, why would I have come here?"
"Because you like dicking around with random people."
"Repeating things doesn't make 'em any more clever."
"That's okay," I say. "I'm not exactly a clever person."
The girl laughs once, and very harshly, before leaning forward in her seat. "Self-deprecation doesn't suit you," she says.
Neither does sarcasm, but I keep doing it anyway.
"And if you got something to say, don't just keep it in your head," she adds. "It's not gonna stay private in there anyway."
"I'm actually pretty good at keeping my inner thoughts a secret," I say. "If my classmates knew half the stuff I thought, they'd ostracize me faster than you can say, 'Freaking weirdo!'" I uncross my arms just long enough to take another bite. "Okay, I need to know your name. I mean, you know mine, but I don't know yours. What's wrong with this picture?"
"How can you be so sure I know your name?" the girl asks.
"Gabe must've told you."
"What if he didn't?"
I shake my head. "He did. Come on, just say it. You know my name."
The girl puts down her slice and steeples her fingers. "Fine. I do know your name. Alex Snow."
"Congratulations, you even pronounced it correctly." I allow a grin to flash across my face for a split second. "So what's your name?"
She plucks a sausage off her pizza, chews it slowly, then swallows it. "Fionna Lee. That's with two 'n's and two 'e's."
"Hold on, lemme write that down." I pull a stubby pencil out of my pocket (not sure why it was there to begin with, but at least it comes in handy right now) and write her name on my napkin. "F...I...O...N...A...L...E. Oh wait, you said two 'n's...here, I'll fix that..."
"You weren't kidding about being bad at sarcasm, were you?" Fionna says.
"Jeez, you think?"
Fionna leans back again, and I see her foot poke out from under the table as she crosses her legs. "Okay. Now that that's out of the way, I have a serious question for you."
"Why are you dating outside your race? What, angel girls aren't willing to put out? 'Cause if that's what you want, I should warn you I'm not ready to do the do just yet."
I nearly choke on my pizza as I start laughing. "So it's not true, then? That demons are all about the free love?"
"No. Contrary to popular belief, we don't screw like bunnies at the drop of a hat. Now answer the question."
I take a drink of soda - wow, I'm really overdoing it on the sugar today. I probably won't sleepwalk again tonight - hell, I'll be lucky to sleep at all. "No, I'm not looking for sex. We don't really do that."
"I bet the demon half of your DNA isn't so restrained."
"But I'm an angel. Aren't I?"
Fionna frowns. "Not so sure, are you, Alex?"
"Yes. No. I don't know! Help!" We both laugh out loud at this point. "Huh. Maybe that's why I've rejected all the other girls Gabe's set me up with before. The not-being-sure thing, I mean."
"Maybe it's got something to do with the fact that he isn't exactly a good judge of what a good girl is like," Fionna says. "He seems to be more about one-night stands than personal connections."
"You could be right," I say.
"I thought I was right."
"You're not gonna get me to insult my twin. Or his lifestyle choices."
Fionna grins and winks at me. "But hey, you gotta admit, at least one of those other girls Gabe picked out for you had to have wanted to sleep with you."
"True," I say. Unlike angels and humans, among whom big dudes with square jaws, chiseled pecs, and six-pack abs are considered the gold standard of hotness, demons tend to prefer guys with more cherubic, innocent faces, slight frames, and wiry bodies. In other words, a normal, average specimen of a young male angel. We've evolved this way so we have less weight to carry when we fly. Although we also tend to have broad shoulders and chests as well - which I don't really have myself, but I'm told I'll probably be able to fill out in the next year or so.
"So what's your story?" I ask. "Come on, you gotta have one."
Fionna laughs again, shaking her head. "Whatever my story is, it's probably hella boring compared to yours."
"And how would you know anything about my story?"
"Because Gabe told me." Fionna winks.
"But he didn't, did he?"
"I wish he had."
"Good." I breathe a sigh of relief. "I didn't wanna have to kill him."
Fionna buries her head in her hands - trying to hide her ridiculous grin, perhaps? "You wouldn't."
"Maybe I would. I'm pretty good with a knife."
"I doubt that."
I rub my left shoulder, right next to where my scars are hidden under my shirt. "You'd be surprised."
We sit in silence for a while, just grazing on the pizza in front of us. Finally, Fionna speaks up again. "I don't think you exactly answered my question."
"The one about why you're dating a demon girl."
I look down, seriously pondering the question for the first time. I've asked myself this question a bunch of times before, but have never come up with a decent answer, and I say as much to Fionna.
"No way you don't know why."
"Seriously, I don't."
"Is there something you want other than sex, then? Something angel girls can't give you?"
"Maybe," I say. I don't want to say no, because that would be a lie. But if I say yes, I'd either be forced to explain myself, or I'd stay tight-lipped and watch Fionna get steamed at me for not confessing my inner secrets. Something which seems surprisingly unappealing at the moment.
"That's what I thought," Fionna says. "But if you really don't wanna talk about it yet..."
I lean forward with a smile on my face. "Thanks."
"I mean, I think I can figure it out for myself pretty quickly, what it is you want." Fionna moves on to another slice of pizza. "But I won't bring it up. I can be considerate if I want to. I don't have to...what did you say...'dick around' with you all the time."
"Bless your little heart."
Now it's Fionna's turn to laugh so hard she nearly chokes on her pizza. "See, that was good. You should give yourself a little more credit. You're not as bad with sarcasm as you say you are."
"Not always," I say. "Just most of the time."
"All right, that's enough."
I laugh again, enjoying the high-speed banter between us. "Well, hell. Gabe finally got something right." I pause. "Um, you don't have a problem with me saying 'hell' as a swear word, do you?"
"I don't have a problem with swearing, period," Fionna says. "And using 'hell' as a swear is more than okay with me. I mean, angels don't have a problem saying 'Oh my God,' right?"
"Most of us do," I say. "But not me personally. I do it all the time."
Fionna nods and smiles. "Good. The last thing I would've wanted would've been meeting my first angel and he would've been just as uptight as the rest of 'em."
"Again, I'm not like the others."
"So what did Gabe get right, finally?"
I smile again, tilting my head a bit, Ray Reddington-style (but minus the horrific squinty-eyed expression that typically accompanies his head-tiltage).
"He finally found a girl I actually like," I say. "A girl that doesn't bore me to death after the first five minutes. And who isn't bored to death with me after the first five minutes. You know what I mean?"
"I think so," Fionna says. "You're actually a lot of fun to talk with."
"Same to you."
We get distracted for a moment by the sounds of a ruckus by the door. One of the Three Guys - I think his name is TJ Cross, or something similar - picks up a dirty-looking guy, drunk from the look of him, and throws him bodily out the door. The drunk guy tries to push back in, only to be repelled by a blast of flame from TJ.
"I'm not so sure that was a good idea," I say. "Drunk guy, fire elemental? Surprised he didn't go up like the Fourth of July."
"But it worked, right?" Fionna laughs. "So how 'bout Beautiful Creatures, huh? You really liking it so far?"
We spend a while chatting about not only Beautiful Creatures, but other similar books as well. It turns out Fionna and I have a lot in common on that front - we both enjoy Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Night Has Teeth, I Am Number Four, Divergent, Night Shift, Miss Peregrine, and The Vicious Deep, among others.
It's not long before we start to lose track of time, and the next time I look at my watch, I nearly jump out of my seat. It's twenty minutes to eight, our pizza's already gone, and our sodas are on their last gasp. "God, where'd the time go?" I ask nobody in particular.
Fionna snorts the last of her soda out of her nose. Wiping her face, she says, "Well, I hate to leave you now, but all good things..." She steps around the table, her arms out. Unlike me, demons are real huggers, something I found out the hard way on my first failed blind date - the girl practically burst into tears when I didn't even attempt to hug her back as she said good-bye. Today, though, I see no reason to not give Fionna a nice big embrace.
"Whoa there, Feathers," Fionna says, pulling away slightly. "Is that a roll of quarters in your pocket or are you just happy to say good-bye?" Automatic embarrassment overrides my rational side, and I scramble back into my chair, slouching as much as possible before my brain finally screams at me that Fionna was just kidding.
She throws her head back and laughs - I wasn't even aware people actually did that in real life. "Haha, I couldn't resist!"
"Never gets old, huh?"
Fionna smacks me on the arm.
"So, uh, when should we meet again?"
"Shiver is gonna hit the theater this weekend," Fionna says. "Work out the details later?"
"What's that movie again?"
Fionna describes it, and I instinctively shake my head. "Nah, that sounds a bit too Twilight-ish, don't you think?"
Fionna gasps loudly and claps her hands over her mouth. "Never mention that monstrosity in front of me! And besides, you could use a bit more experience with paranormal romance. Good paranormal romance, I mean."
"Like Beautiful Creatures? Well, what better guide than a friendly demon?" I ask, writing my number on another napkin. Fionna does the same with her own number and hands the napkin to me. "Say hi to Gabe for me, would you?"
"He's your brother," Fionna points out. "You can't do it yourself?"
"You know what I mean."
"And you know I'm gonna mock everything you say and do, right?" Fionna laughs as I try and fail to splutter out a halfway-comprehensible response, then grabs my head and ruffles my hair. "You have a really shaggy head, did you know that?"
"Oh no, now the secret's out!" I gasp. "I'm gonna have to find a new haircutter."
Fionna laughs at my atrocious comeback one last time. "It was nice meeting you, Alex."
"Likewise," I say. "And congratulations, you still haven't forgotten how to say my name right."
We hug again, this time without any dirty jokes about nonexistent hard-ons getting in the way, and leave the pizzeria, heading off in opposite directions.
Once I'm back in Heaven and off the Bridge, I enter Fionna's number into my phone, hoping I won't accidentally call up the same number on Earth or something when I try to get ahold of her. I fly back up to school, happy when I find that Luca still hasn't locked the window after all.
"I see you had fun," Luca says as I re-enter the room and sit on my bed. Apparently, even when it's under my breath, my singing can still be heard.
"For once," I respond. I open my book again and prop it against my folded legs.
"What's that you're reading?" Luca asks, pulling his black thermal shirt over his head.
I hold up the book so Luca can see it. "Fionna - the girl I met today - she recommended it to me. It's way better than I ever thought it would be, to be honest."
"What, you borrowed her copy?"
"No, I bought it myself. It was kind of an impulse decision."
Luca chuckles. "A few more impulse decisions like that and you'll end up flat broke, dude."
"Don't remind me," I say, shuddering. I stay up reading for a while, until ten o'clock comes and goes. By this time, I've made it to page 300, just a little over halfway there already. "Dammit," I groan, reaching out to set the alarm clock. "Whatever. Guess we can't afford to compromise our sleep that much. Good night, buddy."
"Good night." Luca turns out the light. I put my book on the side table and go under the covers, but then Luca's phone rings. "Shit," he groans. "Sorry, dude. I thought I'd turned it off...Huh. It's Marco. What's he calling me up for?"
"You gonna answer it?" I ask.
"Of course," Luca says. He presses the button and says, "Hey, Marco. What's up?" Pause. "What? No. Holy f...no way. All right, all right, we're coming already." He hangs up and says, "Alex, get your pants on. There's a news report on right now..." His voice trails off.
"What? What is it?" I grab my pants and start to put them on, and at the same time I hear Luca's thoughts: This can't be happening...but how?
Luca doesn't say a word. Instead, he leads me to the lounge silently.
Most of the senior class is gathered around on the couches, all facing the big-screen TV near the boys' dorm door. Luca and I see Marco sitting on the arm of one couch, gripping the remote with white knuckles.
I follow Marco's gaze and see the report with its bright red Breaking News headline blaring, "SHOCKING DEATH IN COLDFIRE CREEK."
Then I hear the reporter talking as the camera pans around to show the partially covered corpse of a headless guy, just as the cops finish pulling the white tarp over it. "Nicks County sheriffs have confirmed that the body is that of seventeen-year-old Steven Walker, a senior at Balthazar Academy."
I feel like all the blood is draining out of me. Luca and I exchange stricken glances. Our telepathy only confirms what we're both thinking about - the head lying on Steve's bed.
"Holy shit," I say. "That's gotta be just part of the act. Right?"
"I don't think so," Luca says. "Getting a fake severed head is one thing. But faking your own death...?"
I look at Marco, who's continuing to stare at the screen, a single tear dripping from his eye. He then stands up, sniffs loudly, and grabs Luca and me in a big group hug. Unsure of what else to do, I pat Marco's back, feeling his wings twitch as he tries to hold back his sobs.
"I'm so sorry, Marco," Luca says. I add my condolences a second later.
Marco lets go of both of us, whispers, "Thanks, guys," and then breaks away to go back to his room.
Luca and I turn around to see the crowd all staring at us. "What are you looking at?" Luca grumbles. "Come on, everyone, let's go back to bed."
We're the first ones to go back into the dorm hall. As we pass Marco's room, we hear him crying, even through the closed door.