Luka (a companion novel) Teaser


I’m not supposed to exist. 

The intrusive thought runs through my mind as I sit inside a drafty office, staring at the mugshot paper-clipped to a file in the doctor’s lap.

A teenager with dark, messy hair. Straight nose. Olive skin. Camo green eyes. A strong, symmetrical jaw. And full, unsmiling lips set in such a way as to suggest amusement. Or maybe sarcasm. The combination of features are objectively attractive. I understand this without any arrogance or pride. What I don’t understand is how those features exist at all. They shouldn’t—a truth I hadn’t fully grasped until recently, when I overheard my parents talking in dulcet tones behind their closed bedroom door. 

The next day, my father announced that we were moving. Across the country. To a town called Thornsdale on the northern coast of California. Now here I sit in a red leather chair at my very first appointment at the Edward Brooks Facility with its one and only out-patient psychiatrist—a man named Dr. Roth with an office that smells like ammonia. I picture him sanitizing with it after every session like crazy is a contagion. A germ to be caught. Maybe this is why the mentally unstable are locked away from society. If left in the world, they would spread their germs and we would have a full-blown pandemic on our hands. Nobody wants that, so the insane are sequestered away—treated in seclusion—until they are no longer symptomatic. 

I look from the framed diploma on Dr. Roth’s wall to the tall filing cabinet beside his work desk. There’s no computer. No laptop. If I had to guess, there isn’t an iPad tucked away in a drawer or anything else that might store hackable data. My father’s policy, no doubt. A man so rich and powerful he bought one of the country’s last remaining privately-owned mental health facilities in order to keep his son off the government’s radar.

Dr. Roth’s bifocals slide down his bulbous nose as he studies the paperwork in my file. I watch him take it all in, wondering what’s inside. The whole truth and nothing but the truth? Or did my father exclude the part where he’s at least partially culpable? 

I shift in my chair, the leather squeaking beneath me. “Do you believe in God?”

Dr. Roth looks from the file to me, caught off guard as he pushes up his glasses. “Do you?”

I know the correct answer. The widely acceptable answer. No, of course not. We live in a world that has systematically eradicated God and all things supernatural from existence. We live in a world that is purely physical and should it ever seem otherwise, just wait a moment. A reasonable explanation will be found eventually. Still, I can’t help but imagine some cosmic creator constructing humans on a manufacturing belt high up in the sky. I glance again at the file in Dr. Roth’s lap. If such a God exists, then he not only forgot to tighten the screws in my head, he left something out altogether. Some vital piece that makes everyone else around me whole while I remain … half. This is the symptom not in the file. The one I have never articulated and can never escape. The ever-present feeling that I’m living life with a missing piece. A phantom limb. Probably the sort of thing a person ought to talk to a therapist about. But after overhearing that conversation between my parents, I don’t think it would be wise.

I’m not supposed to exist. 

Dr. Roth scratches the whiskers of his mousy brown goatee, a spark of unmistakable interest in his narrowed eyes. A spark that has me feeling like a novel virus under a microscope. “Why do you ask about God, Luka?”

“Just curious, I guess.”

He crosses his ankle over his knee. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself.”

I cross my ankle over my knee, too, mirroring his posture. With my elbows propped on the armrests of the chair, I steeple my fingers. “What do you want to know?”

“How are you adjusting to the move?”

I shrug. We’ve been unpacking boxes for three weeks now, slowly and steadily filling our new home—a behemoth house inside the gated community of Forest Grove, conveniently located a couple blocks south of this very facility. “The surfing’s good.”

“Ah, yes. Surfing. It says here that you quite enjoy it.” Dr. Roth shuffles through the papers. “That seems like a solitary endeavor.”

“I don’t mind solitude.”

“Do you consider yourself a loner?”

I consider myself out of step. One notch removed. But I swallow the words and shrug again. The less I give Dr. Roth, the better. My goal, in fact, is to give him so little he renders our appointments unnecessary. 

“How was your first day of school?” he asks.


“Did you make any friends?” he says in a rush, almost like he’s required to ask the question. Orders from his new boss, probably. At the request of the boss’s wife. My mother really wants me to make friends. 

“Everyone’s been … very welcoming.”

“Have you considered participating in any extracurriculars?”


“I hear you’re good at football.”

I don’t mean to react. But I must do something. An eye-roll. A huff of breath, perhaps?

Whatever it is, Dr. Roth pounces. “Does that annoy you?”

“I’m not interested in football.”

“Your father seems to think the coach is interested in you.”

I give him a third shrug. The coach is my new P.E. teacher. He saw me tossing a football in class and made a special call home that same day. My mother’s eyes were aglow when she relayed the conversation word-for-word. That son of yours has one heck of an arm, Mrs. Williams. It’s not too often I see a freshman throw with that much speed and accuracy. We sure could use him on the team. 

My poor mother.

All of this would be easier if she’d had an awkward son. An unattractive, uncoordinated son. Instead—in a cruel twist of fate—she got one with all the right ingredients. Except for the most crucial. 

I’m not supposed to exist.

“Well then, why don’t we get to it.” Dr. Roth clears his throat. “Your parents report that you’ve experienced … hallucinations.” His left brow arches with the word. 

I don’t respond.

“Have you had any recently?”


This is lie number one.

“And the unexplained fluctuations in temperature—what about those?”

“Haven’t had them.”

This is lie number two.

Dr. Roth pulls at his whiskers. Pull, scratch. Pull, scratch. The rhythmic sound of gently peeling Velcro. I wait him out, twisting the frayed hemp around my wrist. A bracelet that contains three stones—red jasper, jade, and onyx. A gift my mother purchased when my oddities became particularly burdensome. Protective stones, she’d said. A ridiculous idea. A contradictory one, too. Stones are stones are stones. They don’t have protective powers. The very notion reeks of the supernatural. 

“What about the dreams?” Dr. Roth finally asks, the sparkle in his eye filling me with distrust. “With the girl. Have you had any of those?”

I stare back at him without blinking. 

“No,” I say.

This is lie number three.

The biggest one of them all.


Chapter One
2 Years Later

The dream shoves me awake. 

I bolt upright, heart thundering. Chest heaving. Cold sweat trickling down my back. The memory of it fills the space in my mind, crowding everything else away, until nothing exists but her. Dark hair. Fair skin. Pointy chin. Round, navy eyes with freckles as small as pinpricks dusted across the bridge of her nose. Her narrow shoulders squared in such determined ferocity, it takes my breath away. The image is more vivid than anything in real life and in its wake comes a crushing need.

To find her. 

To know her. 

To protect her.

The insatiable hunger of it curls inside of me—this craving that will never be satisfied. Because the girl isn’t real. I’m obsessed with a figment of my imagination, a creation of my own making—a constant reminder that while I may be able to fool my parents, while I may be able to fool Dr. Roth and my classmates and society at large, I will never be able to fool myself. I—Luka Williams—am certifiably, unequivocally insane. 

I drag my hands through my hair, then down my face. Toss the covers off my body and head into the bathroom, where I put in my contacts and take a shower. With my palms flat against the tiled wall, I let the hot spray knead the tension from my shoulders. But the memory remains. A shower won’t wash it away. Never has before. Won’t start now. Still, I make the water hotter like more steam might offer an escape. 

It doesn’t. 

I dry off with her in my head. 

Get dressed with her in my head. 

Brush my teeth with her in my head.

Downstairs, my mother bakes. 

I step into the kitchen, inhaling the smell of warm chocolate while she hums near the stove, scooping cookies off a metal sheet and onto a serving dish. I reach for one, just barely snagging the edge when she swats at my hand with the spatula.

“These are not for you,” she says.

“Who’re they for?”

“Our new neighbors.” She gives me a casual once over. “Isn’t there a football game tonight?”

She asks like she doesn’t already know. 

“Yes.” I lean against the counter. 

“You don’t want to wear something more … festive?”

Today is Friday, the very last day of spirit week at school. Homecoming week. The Thornsdale Dragons will play the big game tonight. A dance will follow tomorrow. Mom would probably light up like a Christmas tree if I came into the kitchen with my face painted red and gray. Instead, I’m wearing a plain white t-shirt and jeans. “I have my dragon costume upstairs. Want me to go get it?”

She rolls her eyes, then scoops more cookies onto the serving dish, oblivious to the trail of tiny lights twinkling behind her. “I met the mother the other day while they were unloading the truck.”

I blink. “The mother?”

“Our new neighbors. The Eckharts. Her name’s Miranda. Her husband is a corporate manager for Safe Guard Security Systems. They have two children in high school.”

My attention remains fixed on Mom, the tiny lights still twinkling. Spinning. Not really there, but a misfire in my brain. Something only I can see. Something I’ve learned to ignore.  “Maybe one of them wants to borrow my dragon costume.”

This elicits another eye roll.  

“Did Dad leave for work?” I try again to reach for a cookie.

Mom slaps my hand away. “Half an hour ago. He wanted to get some things wrapped up before he leaves tomorrow.”

“Before we leave tomorrow.”

She frowns. 

I am unswayed. 

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay?” she asks.

“Let me see. Stay in Thornsdale …” I hold up my hands like a balancing scale. “Or go with Dad to Santa Cruz.” It’s not even a contest. Santa Cruz is one of California’s best surfing spots.

“Luka, it’s homecoming. You really want to miss the dance?” 


“Summer would go with you in a heartbeat. She’s such a sweet girl and you two would make the cutest couple.”

Summer Burbanks is far from a sweet girl and I’m not interested in making a cute anything with her, but it’s wasted breath. My mom takes fitness classes with Summer’s mom. She adores Mrs. Burbanks and her daughter, and once Mom forms an opinion, there’s no changing it. “I’m pretty sure Summer’s already going with someone.”

“I’m pretty sure she would change her plans for you.”



“I’m not taking Summer—or any other girl to the dance.” The mere thought exhausts me. Faking normalcy all day at school is torture enough. I don’t have the energy—or the inclination—to put in overtime at a dance. 

My mother sags, catching me with the smallest sliver of guilt. She wants to relive her high school years through her one and only son. I’ve never been very cooperative. 

“Maybe I’ll ask Summer to the winter formal.” I give her cheek a quick peck, then reach past her and finally—successfully—snag a cookie.


“It’s just one.” With a quick step away, I take a bite. 

She shoos her spatula at me as I head into the living room—away from my mom, away from the twinkling trail of light—and turn on the television. International popstar sensation B-Trix smiles inside the screen, talking about the latest technological advancement in a commercial ad for pregnancy screenings. All the guys in my class are obsessed with her. They think she’s the hottest thing to walk the earth. Personally, she makes the muscles in my jaw clench. Not with desire, either. Maybe if her newest platform wasn’t so personal—maybe if it wasn’t a constant reminder of the precarious truth I uncovered two years ago—I’d have a different opinion. But her latest platform is personal. So the muscles in my jaw remain tight until the morning news anchor appears. She covers cheery topics, from the escalating unrest in Egypt to the rising crime rate within our own boarders to Abigail Cormack, the independent presidential candidate making big promises to fix it all.

Compelled by need—or maybe habit—I lean closer and twist the hemp bracelet around my wrist. Searching. Every story. Every commercial. I study every face, willing her into existence—that deep, hungry ache stretching like sharp talons inside. And while it’s all a particular brand of torture, I wish none of it away. As maddening as the dreams are, I don’t want them to stop.

If they do, the girl will be gone. 

And that—I am certain—would be worse than death.


Chapter Two

Red and gray homecoming posters decked out with dragons decorate the lockers as I stride through the wide, nearly empty hallway toward first period. Current Events with Lotsam. There aren’t any desks inside his classroom, rather a collection of rectangular tables arranged in a horseshoe around the edge of the room. I slip inside class right as the bell rings. The only seat available is next to the girl my mom wants me to take to homecoming. 


She catches my eye and flashes a bright, white smile.

I take the seat and tell myself Summer is fine. She isn’t hard to look at; she can even be funny—if you can get over the fact that her humor is almost always at somebody else’s expense. Still, the way she shifts her chair closer makes me wish I would have skipped first period. Maybe it’s my mother’s constant attempt at matchmaker. Maybe it was the depressing news that played on the television as I searched every face for the one I can never find. Or maybe it’s the fact that when it comes down to it, I find Summer Burbanks a little tedious. A walking, talking movie trope with her honey blonde hair and possessive, mean girl vibe. All of it reeks of a desperation that is somehow lost on everyone but me.

At the front of the class, Lotsam spreads his hands wide. He’s sporting a gray soul patch where his beard used to be. He wears moccasins and a ponytail and has got to be close to retiring.  

“I hear,” he says, pausing for a beat while the class settles into silence, “that we have a new student in our midst.” 

Everyone’s attention swivels in my direction, only instead of looking at me, they look at the person next to me. Not Summer, but a girl to my left. She’s small, with dark, shoulder-length hair that hides the majority of her profile. And yet, the familiar point of her nose draws me in. My spine straightens as something inside stirs awake.

Leela McNeil—one of the student ambassadors, a genuinely nice girl in my grade dressed in red from head to toe—stands and takes an excited breath. “Everybody, this is Tess Eckhart. She just moved here from Florida. Tess, this is everybody.”


My new next-door neighbor.

The one Mom was baking cookies for.

Tess gives a shy wave to the class, then shifts ever so slightly. My heart picks up speed—a dull thud-thud that grows louder and faster. Lotsam starts talking, but I don’t hear him. He might as well be speaking underwater. My heightened senses narrow into a singular point aimed directly at this girl. I need to see her face. The urge is so irrepressible, I have to grip the underside of my chair to keep from reaching out and sweeping her hair away. 

Lotsam claps his hands. 

The sharp sound startles me. I blink a few times, conscientious of the fact that I was just staring with an intensity that isn’t normal. 

“Since our classes are cut short today because of the pep rally,”—the class breaks into applause—“how about we jump right in?”

A collective grumble replaces the cheering. 

Lotsam jots Presidential Election on the board while my attention returns to Tess. She sits with her elbow propped on the table beside a pencil, her hand disappearing beneath her hair—fingers most likely wrapped around the back of her neck. She is small. Her hair, glossy. She wears a light pink cardigan and dark jeans and if I don’t stop staring, she’s going to notice. I need to peel my attention away, but I can’t. It’s like I am the tide and she’s the moon—a force of gravity impossible to resist. An irrational thought. One I need to check and check quickly.

I force my attention forward—onto Lotsam and the chalkboard—just as she moves. 

Her elbow knocks into her pencil. 

And I am primed. Alert. Ready. I snag it before it falls to the ground—a quick, confident grab—and hand it over. Her eyes meet mine, and the world drops out from underneath me.

It’s her.

The girl from my dreams. 

The girl I’ve spent years searching for. 

The girl who doesn’t exist.

It’s impossible. Mind-blowingly impossible. And yet there’s no mistaking it. She has the same navy eyes and the same pointy chin and the same fair skin and the same spray of freckles across her nose. Even the same small, white scar along her jawline. She is right here. In the flesh. Sitting beside me in Current Events, no longer a figment of my imagination. But incredibly, astonishingly, insanely … real. 

“Th-thanks,” she stammers.

I give her a slow, disbelieving nod. Trying to process. Unable to process. A million half-formed questions buzzing and booming in my mind. Where did she come from? How is she here? Why is she here?

Summer nudges me with her elbow. 

I’m convinced that if I continue staring like this, I will make Tess Eckhart uncomfortable. I probably already have made her uncomfortable. The thought motivates me to look away. Somehow, her discomfort would be my own. I command my body to relax, my muscles to unwind. But my body refuses to listen. After all these years, after searching millions of faces, she’s suddenly and unexplainably real. Sitting to my left, close enough to touch, heat radiating off her body, pulsing through my own.

Summer nudges me again.

A needed distraction.

Taking hold of it, I read the bubbly letters she scribbled in her notebook.

How many touchdowns do you think we’re going to lose by tonight?

My mouth tips up at one corner—a normal response. An expected one. Our football team isn’t good. Summer knows it. I know it. Everybody knows it. Even though the student body dresses and cheers like the Thornsdale Dragons of Northern California are the defending state champions. 

I pick up my pencil and write something back. Meanwhile, it feels like somebody has filled a syringe full of amphetamine, injected it into my brain, and now my only job is to sit still and act calm. Everything hums—with energy, with awareness, with utter disbelief—as one thought and one thought alone consumes me:

I have to know her.


Chapter Three

When it comes to faking normal, I have plenty of practice. I’m used to pretending—a skill meticulously honed for self-preservation. The world doesn’t tolerate crazy, so I’ve become adept at tucking the crazy away.  But right now, with the appearance of this girl who has consumed my nights—and much of my days, too—the crazy has turned into the Hulk. An out-of-control green beast determined to leave a path of destruction in its wake. 

It takes Herculean effort to sit there on a stool in my second period Ceramics class, working bubbles out of clay. Just like it took Herculean effort to walk out of Lotsam’s class with Summer, away from the girl whose presence—whose very existence—upends everything.

Tess Eckhart. 

After all these years, she has a name. 

And I walked away from her. 

A fact that has a full-blown war waging in my head.

One half demands that I get up and go find her. Right now, you idiot. Before she vanishes as quickly as she appeared. The other half—the one that has spent the better part of my life suppressing my own instincts, cultivating self-control—refuses to indulge irrational whims. Leaving class to go find the new girl would be irrational. Leaving class to search Google for answers would also be irrational. So here I sit, crawling out of my skin, breaking apart this hunk of clay and kneading it back together when movement by the door catches my eye. 

Two girls walk inside.

The dressed-in-red Leela McNeil. 

And Tess Eckhart. 

A wave of violent, unadulterated relief washes through me. I didn’t make her up. First period wasn’t a dream. She’s here, in my second class. And she has a friend. She’s not alone on her first day. I have no idea why this matters so much to me; I only know that it does. It means everything to watch Leela smile as Tess says something I can’t hear.

They set their bags on an unoccupied table. 

Across from me, Jennalee Fisher—a girl even more tedious than Summer—lobs a piece of clay in my direction.

I dodge it easily.

“You’re quiet today,” she says.

I’m quiet most days, I think, my attention sliding back to Tess. This time, she must sense my stare. Our eyes lock and my body hums. I lean forward like a sun-starved plant reaching for the light. Does she feel it too—this intense connection? Is it possible that somehow, she knows me like I know her? Or am I just another face in a crowd of new faces, staring with the same curiosity my classmates had when I was the new student two years ago? I hold her gaze, hoping she’ll give me a sign. Some indication that I’m not the only crazy person here.

Color mounts in her cheeks and she severs eye contact.

I don’t catch her looking again until lunch.

I sit where I always sit. At a table with Summer and Jennalee. The quarterback of the football team—a tall, lanky senior named Matt Chesterson. A meat-headed linebacker named Jared who loves to hear himself talk. And some other classmates who are constantly trying to pull me into their conversation. Today, I can’t be pulled. I peel my orange, my thoughts fixated on the girl. In my dream, she’s always in danger. In my dream, her life is more important than anything else. Here in the cafeteria, she’s not in danger. But the same feeling—that there is nothing more crucial than keeping her safe—overwhelms me. When I look up from my orange, I spot her across the cafeteria.

She’s looking at me again. 

Only this time, our eyes do not lock.

She ducks her head so quickly I barely have time to catch her.

For the rest of the day, I obsess over the mystery, listening attentively to my gossiping classmates in case I might glean some answers. But my classmates don’t notice her like I do. They certainly don’t notice her like they noticed me when I was the new kid. The girls are much more interested in her younger brother, Pete. Tess seems to fly under everyone’s radar. Meanwhile, I have to fight the urge to start conversations about her. 

Final period is World History with Lotsam, the teacher who sandwiches my school days. Summer and Jennalee are also in the class. They look at me eagerly as I step inside, the same way they look at me every day. Avoiding them both, I find a seat in the back, and just as the bell rings, Tess slips in. The tension that’s been winding through my muscles releases. I can breathe again.

All of it, insanity.

Lotsam motions to the empty seat beside me.

Tess approaches hesitantly. Probably because I’ve been staring at her all day and she’d rather sit by somebody who isn’t a stage four creeper. This has to stop. I have to get a hold of myself before I frighten her. That’s the last thing I want to do. So while Lotsam waxes on about some long-ago war I don’t care about, I twirl a pencil around the tip of my thumb as if I’m not acutely aware of the girl beside me—cataloging every breath, taking inventory of every movement, committing to memory every detail. Like the faint scent of strawberries in her hair and the way she lets it drape between us like a protective curtain. A couple times she scratches the inside of her wrist, which has gone red. Most girls go out of their way to get my attention. This girl shifts her weight to avoid mine. It’s both refreshing and maddening.   

The bell finally rings.

Everybody rushes out of class, excited to get to the pep rally. I linger, hoping for an excuse to talk with her. To hear her voice. To look into her eyes and make sure—extra sure—that I’m not making this up. But she takes meticulous care in packing her bag, nervousness rolling off her in waves. It’s obvious I’m making her uncomfortable. Wanting—no, needing—to put her at ease, I scoot my chair back and leave for the gymnasium, casting one last look over my shoulder as I go.

Several people catch me along the way, slapping me high fives and fist bumps, drumming up conversation. I go through the motions until I find myself in the middle of the loud gym, standing between Summer in her cheerleading outfit, and a senior named Bobbi in hers. I chew my thumbnail as the two of them talk, searching the crowd when Leela McNeil’s voice breaks through the noise. 

“Hey, Bobbi,” Leela says.

I turn in her direction.

She’s pulling Tess with her.

“Hey Leels!” Bobbi replies. 

Bobbi and Leela are cousins, and while there is no family resemblance, they are similar in personality—both sincere. Both kind.

“You’re Tess, right?” Bobbi asks.

Tess nods.

“Welcome to Thornsdale. Leela and I are cousins.”

A flicker of something flutters in Tess’s eyes, then quickly disappears. I wish I knew what it meant. I want to know what she’s thinking.

“Bobbi’s a senior.” Leela beams proudly. “She’s on the homecoming court.” 

Bobbi turns her smile from Leela to Tess. “You coming to the game tonight?”

“Leela and I are going,” Tess answers.

Other than the startled thank you from first period, it’s the first time I’ve heard her voice. In my dreams, she never speaks. She’s too busy marching courageously into battle. Her tone is soft and adorably self-conscious. A fascinating contradiction to the confidence she displays in my sleep. A confidence that intensifies my fear. It’s like she doesn’t even realize she’s in danger. Or she doesn’t care.

“I told her we’re going to lose,” Leela says. “I want her to have realistic expectations.”

Bobbi slugs my shoulder. “If this guy would join the team, we wouldn’t have a problem.”

“That would mean your boyfriend would be out of a position,” I say, distracted. Willing Tess to look at me.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Bobbi replies.

Tess finally looks. 

And it’s like I’ve won the entire world.

I slide my hands into my pockets. “Are you having a good first day?”

She nods.

A thousand questions crowd inside my brain, fighting to get out. Who are you? What are you doing here? Am I in your dreams? Do you lead armies in yours like you do in mine? I hold them back and select something much less deranged. “Where did you move from?”

“Jude.” She clears her throat. “It’s in Florida.”

“Never heard of it,” Summer drawls, picking her nail.

“Not many people have,” Tess says. “It’s a small town.”

“Can’t be much smaller than Thornsdale. This place is so boring.” Summer pouts at me like I’m to blame for her boredom. Her voice grates like nails on a chalkboard, especially since it’s not her voice I’m craving. “If somebody would teach me to surf, then it wouldn’t be so bad.”

I have zero interest in teaching Summer to surf.

Tess, however … 

Leela asks Bobbi about her homecoming dress, changing the course of the conversation. Tess doesn’t join. She’s very quiet. Shy. And yet, there’s this aura around her that makes the air crackle and pop. I stare at her while she stares at her shoes until something happens that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

The temperature plummets.

It’s fast and dramatic and completely unnatural.

My muscles coil. 

Usually, I’d remind myself that it isn’t real, but an odd symptom of my abnormality. The temperature hasn’t actually dropped. Just like there wasn’t twinkling lights in the kitchen behind my mother earlier this morning. These things are nothing but chemical imbalances in my head—imbalances I need to hide at all costs. But then, I thought Tess was all in my head, too. Yet here she stands, this girl I’ve been trying to keep alive in my sleep for years. Everything in me wants to step forward and shield her from whatever is making the air so cold.

“Is California very different from Florida?” Bobbi asks.

Tess opens her mouth to answer, but something distracts her. She’s looking past Bobbi’s shoulder. And whatever she sees has her large, navy blue eyes widening, her pupils dilating. “Who is …?”

I follow the direction of her gaze. 

A lumbering figure with lank, greasy hair stands near the bathroom. It’s the kind of figure I’ve seen before. The kind of figure I don’t let myself acknowledge because nobody else can ever see them. Except … I swear Tess can. I swear Tess is fighting the urge to scream.

A bright flash of light fills the gymnasium.

I stand very still. I keep my feet glued to the floor and pretend nothing is happening. I act like every other student around me. Every other student but Tess, who shields her eyes at the exact same moment the flash occurs. 

“Tess?” Leela touches Tess’s arm.

All the color has drained from her face. She’s struggling to recover, just like I’m struggling to recover. Only not from the creepy figure no longer loitering by the bathroom or the flash of light that made the figure disappear. I’m reeling over her. This girl—who I swear—just saw what I saw.

Beside me, Summer gawks. 

Bobbi’s brow furrows. 

They noticed Tess’s reaction, only they didn’t see or feel what she was reacting to. I can tell what they’re thinking. What is wrong with her? I can see how easily Tess could become the center of gossip. As badly as I want to learn more about her, I don’t care to learn in that way. 

I clear my throat—a nice loud clear that pulls the attention to me. I reach for the phone in my back pocket. “Can I get a picture?”

It works.

Summer wraps her arm around Bobbi’s and Leela’s shoulders, happy to be at the center of attention, forgetting all about Tess and the odd way she flung her hand up to her face for no reason they could understand. I snap a few pictures and the cheerleading coach calls them over.

Penelope Waters—a sophomore in my health class—asks Leela a question about an English assignment, leaving Tess and me alone in the crowded gym. She stands there, so pale she’s almost gray. I stand there, wondering what all of it means.