The Gifting (Book 1) Teaser
According to science, humans have no souls. There’s no afterlife or guardian angels or ghosts or spirits or anything at all supernatural. Our world is purely physical. The government has systematically removed God from society. He’s no longer mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance, no longer written on our money, no longer found in our Constitution or acknowledged in any of our political gatherings.
My father thinks this is a good thing. He believes the human race has caused enough damage in the name of religion. We’re better off this way, more evolved, and anybody who thinks differently is a fool. He adamantly, wholeheartedly agrees with science. But I’m not as convinced. Because if science is right, then I’m crazy.
And crazy is dangerous.
Seventeen candles flicker on the cake, illuminating a portion of our kitchen. A pocket of warmth expands inside the room. One that has nothing to do with the cake or the people in front of me. The feeling doesn’t originate inside of me at all. It radiates from beyond the border of the light’s reach, pulsing in the dark. Something shimmers beside our refrigerator and for the briefest of moments—before that beautiful shimmering thing disappears—I feel terrified and brave all at once.
I blink and it’s gone. The only thing hovering near our refrigerator is empty air. The temperature returns to normal, but my heartbeat does not. It thuds in my ears. My younger brother Pete yawns and shakes dark hair from even darker eyes, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else but here—at my lame, four-person birthday party. Dad stands with his arm wrapped around my mother’s waist. She clasps her hands beneath her chin and nods encouragingly. “Go on, Tess. Make a wish.”
So I ignore my brother and fill my lungs with oxygen and wish for the one thing I want most, the one thing that’s constantly elusive.
I wish I could be normal.
I blow toward the candles as hard as I can, but the room doesn’t go dark. One small flame dances on a wick, mocking me.
Tess the Freak
It’s August on the panhandle of Florida and I can’t get warm. The icy chill that woke me in the night refuses to leave. It hovers nearby when I get ready for my first day of junior year, and it follows me into the kitchen where Dad reads the morning newspaper.
There was an earthquake in California, the second one in a month, another riot broke out at a fetal modification clinic in Chicago, a drive-by shooting in Tallahassee, which is like, twenty minutes from where we live, and the unrest in north Africa continues to escalate. Dad thinks it’s only a matter of time before the U.S. gets involved. Dad thinks if we don’t get Egypt under control as soon as possible, we’ll have World War III on our hands. I think he should read the newspaper to himself. But he insists Pete and I know what’s going on in the world.
I grab a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator. “Do you think the Chief of Press ever wants to off himself?”
Mom frowns. “Tess.”
“What? The news is seriously depressing.” I take a swig of o.j.
Mom’s frown deepens. To her, the habit is disgusting. To me, it’s economical.
The paper crinkles as Dad flips to the business section. “You gonna join me at work on Saturday, kiddo?”
“You have to go in this weekend again?” Mom takes the carton from my hands to pour some orange juice in a glass. When she’s finished, she gives me the cup and returns the carton to the top shelf of our fridge.
“I need to get this account finished by Monday.” Dad peers at me over the top of his paper. “Would love your help.”
“Yeah, sure.” While most kids my age hang out with friends on the weekends, I go to work with Dad. It’s the way we bond. I probably know more about security systems than all of his employees at Safe Guard’s west Florida branch combined.
Mom gives Pete and me a goodbye kiss on our cheeks and tells us to have a great first day. The icy chill follows me to school and remains while the principal of Jude High welcomes all 300 of us to a new year. It follows me into Mr. Greeley’s classroom, too. He teaches Current Events, a course every high school student in the country is required to take, because apparently, the government agrees with my dad. Ignorance is unacceptable.
Mr. Greeley calls attendance over the familiar, excited chatter that marks the first day of school. Somehow, I can never figure out how to become a part of it. So I slouch in my seat and doodle mindless swirls on the cover of my folder while Missy Calloway flirts with Dustin O’Malley, a red-headed soccer player with a face full of freckles. Dustin isn’t very cute—but he’s confident and funny and is pretty much the reason why Jude’s soccer team won state last year, so all the girls forgive him.
He crumples a gum wrapper and throws it at Missy. The foil ball tangles in her bleach-blond hair. She half giggles-half shrieks in that stop-it-but-really-don’t kind of way and tries to throw it back. The foil ball lands on the corner of my desk.
Sydney Lauren—whose lips are never the same color—leans forward and pokes Dustin in the back with her pencil. “Psst.”
He twists around.
“I’m having people over tonight. Nothing big. Just a small back-to-school get together.”
I tuck my hair behind my ear to peek at Dustin, but my elbow knocks into my notebook. It falls to the ground. I have to turn all the way around to pick it up and when I do, Sydney raises her eyebrows at me. “You should come too.”
The only reason I’m ever invited anywhere is because girls think if I come, my brother will too. And girls really like Pete, even though he’s a skinny sophomore.
“So …?” Sydney’s eyebrows creep higher up her forehead. “Are you gonna come?”
“It’s a school night.”
I can feel Dustin and Missy staring. “I—uh—already have plans.”
Sydney shrugs. “Well, your brother should still come. Tell him I insist.”
“Yeah. Okay.” The last time I went to a party, I kept seeing stars in the periphery of my vision, as if I had some sort of concussion. I ended up coming home two hours before curfew. My mom was actually disappointed. I turn back around and resume my doodling. Only somehow, the mindless lines have turned into a form—one that resembles a monster with a forked tongue and horns, one I swear I’ve seen before—and for reasons I don’t understand, I have the overwhelming urge to throw the folder away. Or tear it in half. I don’t want that thing or the memory of it anywhere near me.
A collective giggle ripples through the class.
When I look up, Mr. Greeley is staring at me over the top of his clipboard. “Teresa Eckhart?” It’s obvious it’s not the first time he’s called my name.
I clear my throat. “It’s Tess.”
“Speak up please,” he says.
The class giggles again.
“I go by Tess.” My voice escapes like a mouse.
* * *
While most parents wouldn’t let their fifteen- and seventeen-year-old children go to a party on a school night, my mom practically shoves us out the door.
How are you going to make friends if you never go anywhere, sweetheart?
I want to tell her that particular ship has long since sailed. We’ve lived in the small town of Jude, Florida for two years now. Since my dad is some bigwig for one of the nation’s wealthiest security companies—a thriving industry thanks to the escalating crime rate—we move a lot. Part of his job requires planting new branches across the United States. He gets them going, helps them grow, and starts all over again somewhere else.
Mom never complains about the moving, so long as Dad finds a house that is at least fifteen minutes away from the city. According to her, any place with a population over fifteen thousand is too dangerous for children. Plus, she thinks if Pete and I go to smaller schools, we’ll have an easier time fitting in. What she doesn’t realize is that smaller schools also make it easier to stand out. Especially if you’re me.
Anyway, I don’t want to be here, in the balmy heat outside Sydney Lauren’s home. In fact, I’d rather be anywhere but here. Before I express any of this to Pete, he rings the bell. Two seconds later, Sydney swings the door open. She wears neon purple lipstick and a mesh tank top that is completely perfunctory. As she squeals and flings her arms around my brother, I’m distracted by her lime green bra. I would never, in a million years, have the guts to wear that outfit.
“You’re right on time!” She grabs Pete’s hand and pulls him inside. “We just got out the Ouija board.”
Pete laughs. “Ouija board? I didn’t know those still existed.”
“You have to know where to look.” She wags her eyebrows. “I told Rose that this house was built on an Indian burial ground and she doesn’t believe me.”
Sydney lives in a peach-colored stucco home straight out of the twentieth century. Hardly haunted house material. Still, my stomach squirms. The law prohibits the selling of items that perpetuate belief in the supernatural. The thing is, forbidding teenagers to dabble in anything supernatural only guarantees that they will.
She leads Pete over to the small crowd lounging around a coffee table. There are five juniors. Two seniors. A bowl of candy, a bag of pretzels, and a half-empty bottle of Smirnoff. Pete squeezes in on the couch and Sydney sits on his knee like the two are a couple. Elliana—a girl with an eyebrow ring and fluorescent colored bracelets covering both of her wrists—shoots daggers at Sydney.
I feel sick.
Despite taking two Excedrin Migraine pills, a headache pierces my left temple. Clasping my hands in front of my waist, I watch Missy set up the Ouija board while everyone else laughs and clowns around. Nobody has noticed me yet. Which means it’s not too late to turn around and leave. As soon as the thought occurs, Missy spots me in the doorway. “Hey everybody, look who’s here. It’s Teresa.” She raises a plastic red cup in my direction. I’m pretty sure she’s not drinking water. “Aren’t you going to come in? We’re about to have a séance.”
“Yeah, we’re gonna talk to some dead Indians.”
“The politically correct term is Native Americans, Syd.” Dustin pops a handful of M&M’s into his mouth.
I peek around the doorway. “Are your parents home?”
Right. The vodka.
“Aw, is Tewesa scared the ghosties will get us without any gwown ups around?”
“Give it a rest, Missy.” Sydney tosses the Ouija board box aside. “Will you hit the lights, Tess? I’m pretty sure this works better in the dark.”
I swallow, but my throat sticks together. Everybody waits for me—Tess the Freak—to unglue my feet from the doorway when what I want to do is crawl under the doormat and disappear. No, scratch that. What I really want is to throw off my headache and my painful shyness and join in the laughter and fun. What I really want, more than anything, is to be a part of this group. So I ignore the erratic galloping of my heart and flip off the lights.
Sydney hops off Pete’s knee and pulls the drapes across the large picture window. The swinging vertical blinds chop apart the waning daylight.
Dustin wiggles his fingers at Missy. “Oo-oooo-ooo!”
She punches his bicep. “Cut it out, jerk.”
I follow Sydney, eager to be closer to the group. Despite being seventeen, darkness still creeps me out. The clamminess spreading across my skin doesn’t help. I take a deep breath and tell myself that fear is irrational. Ghosts are not real. And even if they were, the Ouija board is made by Parker Brothers. Not exactly black market paraphernalia.
Elliana snuggles closer to Pete’s shoulder and wraps her arm around his elbow. “Are you going to save me from the big bad evil spirits?”
Even through the semi-darkness, I can see Pete’s crooked, half smile—the one girls go gaga over—and a surge of jealousy stabs my gut. How can he sit there so at ease? How can two people born from the same gene pool end up so incredibly different? For crying out loud, we don’t even look the same.
Sydney kneels next to Pete’s legs. “Okay, so I think we all have to put our hands on this pointer-thing.”
“It’s called a planchette.”
Everybody looks at Elliana.
“Don’t ask me how I know that.”
“Don’t we need candles or something?” Missy asks.
Rose—a senior with beautiful ebony skin and a killer volleyball spike—wraps her long leg over the arm rest of the love seat. “You can light all the candles you want, the only thing this board can do is teach J.R. the alphabet.”
J.R. tosses an M&M at Rose. She catches it and pops it in her mouth.
“Hey, you better watch it or you’re going to piss off the Indians,” Dustin says.
The banter is lighthearted, but the hair on the back of my arms prickles. I can’t bring myself to laugh with the rest of them. All I can think is that I really, really want to leave.
Physical, physical, physical. Dad says the world is purely physical …
Missy sets her cup on the coffee table. “I think we should hold hands.”
“Jeez, Miss, if you wanted to hold my hand so badly, you should have just said so from the beginning.” Dustin gives her a lighthearted thwack with a pillow. “We don’t need a séance for that.”
Missy flicks her hair. “You wish.”
Sydney puts her fingers on the pointer, the planchette. Whatever it’s called. And I have the same feeling I had in Mr. Greeley’s Current Events class, when that monster stared up at me from my folder—a coldness that won’t go away. A coldness so deep I can feel it in my bones. I fist my hands in my lap.
Dustin and Missy put their fingers on the planchette too.
“I cannot believe we’re doing this,” Rose mutters.
“Shhh!” Sydney sits up straighter and closes her eyes. The room fills with laughter and … something else. A presence that makes my breath come so quick and so shallow, I worry I might be having a panic attack. I glance at Pete and Elliana flirting, at Rose sticking her tongue out at J.R., and I can’t figure out how they don’t feel it.
Sydney wears the kind of expression that says she’s trying hard to act serious, but a smile makes the corners of her lips twitch. She clears her throat and waits for the giggling and whispering to cease. “Who is with us in this house?” she asks in a low, spooky voice. Dustin and Missy giggle. “We’d like to speak with you.”
I tell my heart to calm down. I tell myself I’m being a spaz. I tell myself I will never, ever fit in if I can’t do a stupid séance with a group of teenagers on a Parker Brothers Ouija board. But then something moves in the corner of the room, near the hallway, and I squeeze my eyelids shut.
It was just my imagination. It was just my imagination …
“We invite you in.” Sydney’s voice has turned into an exaggerated moan. I peek at her through squinted eyes. “Tell us who you are.”
The planchette moves across the board. Missy takes her fingers away.
Elliana nudges Dustin with her foot. “Very funny, O’Malley.”
He holds up his hands. “It wasn’t me.”
The room plunges into ice. I wrap my fingers around my throat and squeeze my eyes tight. This isn’t real. None of this is real. But then the whispers come. Ghost-like voices that turn my blood cold. Visions slam through me—horrible, awful, terrible images—worse than any nightmare I’ve ever had. Visions of death and decay and gnashing teeth and man-made pits filled with cold, lifeless bodies. Visions of skinny, pale people wrapped in straitjackets, black mouths splitting their faces with silent, anguished screams.
Something brushes against my leg. I slap my shin. Something tickles my cheek. I slap at my face. But I do not—cannot—open my eyes. I refuse to face whatever is on the other side of my eyelids. The whispers turn into screams. Blood-curdling, heart-stopping screams. Like whatever is out there wants me to look. Demands me to look. As hard as I try, I can’t make them stop. I can’t make me stop.
The screams are coming from me.
I wake up to the hushed voices of Mom and Dad and another I don’t recognize. My head pounds as I open my eyes to a blinding white box—white walls, white floors, white sheets, white bed. The brightness is so sterile and shocking, I throw my arm over my face.
Where am I? What happened?
“Her tests came back clean,” the unfamiliar voice says. “We didn’t find any traces of drugs or alcohol in her system.”
“None?” My mom sounds deflated, like the no drugs or alcohol is bad news.
“No, I’m sorry.”
My temples throb around the response. Why would he be sorry? I slide my arm away and this time, I understand why the whiteness is so bright. Sunlight filters inside an open window. I turn my head on the pillow and spy my parents and a man in a white coat huddled together in the corner, near the door. My mom presses her fingers against her lips and shakes her head. “I don’t understand.”
“We’ll know more when your daughter wakes up. We can hear what she has to say about …” the doctor frowns, “the episode.”
“My daughter is not crazy.” Mom’s words come out sharp and vehement. And with them, comes clarity. It floods back into place with a vengeance. The party at Sydney’s. The Ouija board and the voices and the screams. My stomach churns. I should be afraid, maybe even terrified. But all I can feel is humiliation. Abject humiliation. Because what must I have done to end up in a hospital? The churning turns my stomach to rot.
“I’m merely following protocol, Mrs. Ekhart.”
The doctor leaves and I close my eyes, feigning sleep. I cannot face my parents or their worry. I cannot face anybody ever again. I want to hide behind my closed eyelids forever. I want to avoid whatever repercussions lay beyond this bed. The seconds tick into minutes. The silence in the room crackles with tension.
“What are you thinking?” It’s my father’s voice.
“You know exactly what I’m thinking.”
“I’m sure there is a perfectly logical explanation for what happened.” These are classic my dad-isms. According to him, logic explains everything. And if it can’t, he dismisses it altogether. His world makes no room for the unexplainable. “Tess is sensitive. We’ve always known that. She probably got spooked and the other kids exaggerated.”
“You think Pete is exaggerating?” Mom’s voice wobbles. “James, our son said she was hitting and scratching herself. He said she was screaming for something to get off her.”
I sink further into the bed, fear expanding inside my lungs. Never mind the humiliation I will face upon returning to school, I could be committed for this. I could be locked up in a cell and never let out again.
“What do you want me to say?” Dad asks.
“I want you to promise me she’ll be okay. I want you to promise that we won’t lose her. I want you to promise that our daughter won’t end up like your mom.”
My heart pounds into the silence, joined with the erratic breaths escaping my lips. My grandmother is dead. She died of a heart attack years ago, when I was too young to remember. So what is my mother talking about? Why is she afraid I’ll end up dead?
“Tess is not my mother,” Dad says in a voice so low I have to strain to hear it.
“But we’ve always suspected—”
“That’s enough, Miranda.” The sharpness of his words slice through the air. “We can’t talk about this. Not here.”
I open one of my eyes. Dad has ahold of Mom’s arm, their panicked expressions mirrored on each other’s faces.
“It’s not safe.”
A chill ripples through my bones.
“She’s going to have to speak with a government-mandated psychiatrist,” Mom whispers. “Nothing about this is safe.”
* * *
News about my freak-out spreads like pink eye. Another disadvantage of these small towns my mom is so fond of. At school, Pete is guilty by association. No matter how cute the girls think he is, there’s only so much high school students will tolerate. Apparently, having a whacked-out older sister isn’t one of them.
So everyone except Elliana ignores Pete. She must have it bad to risk being ostracized by the entire student body. The two of them stick to each other like double sided tape.
Me? I’m not so much ignored as overtly avoided. Students hurry to the other side of the hall when they pass by, as if I have leprosy instead of an overactive imagination (this is the story I spun for the psychiatrist and I’m sticking to it). Part of me wants to run around touching people, just to see how they’ll react. Instead, I hide behind my veil of dark hair and try to make myself as small as possible, which isn’t very hard, considering my build.
None of this would be so bad if my nightmares weren’t getting worse. Sleep offers no escape. Neither does home. As soon as I returned from the hospital, my parents sat me down at the kitchen table and asked me the same questions as the psychiatrist, only this time, they wanted the truth. My attempt at an explanation turned their faces to the color of ash. They don’t bring it up again. Instead, they tiptoe around me like I’m made out of glass. Like the wrong word or the wrong volume will shatter me to pieces. Or maybe they’re the ones who will break. Maybe I’m the one who’s dangerous.
Their whispered conversation from the hospital clings to my thoughts like a stubborn dryer sheet. Jude High has its first football game tonight and Mom hasn’t even tried talking me into going. She lets me hide in my room. I lie in bed, trying to make sense of my growing confusion. I understand their concerns about the psychiatrist. I understand why they warned me to be careful about what I shared. What I don’t understand is why they’re worried I’ll end up like my dead grandma.
When my brain tires from trying to tease it all apart, I grab my worn copy of I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb—one of the many banned books I’ve come to own—and thumb to the place I earmarked the night before. The book’s about this dude with a schizophrenic brother. It’s not good for me. It makes me wonder. But I can’t stop reading. It’s nice to lose myself in somebody else’s messed up problems for a change, even if those problems are fictional.
I’m about to start another chapter when Pete pokes his head inside my room. For a kid whose life has been ruined all because I’m a freak, he doesn’t hold a grudge. He doesn’t walk around me like I’m made of glass. Instead, he’s grown curious. Like all of a sudden, I’m the most fascinating person on the face of the planet. Apart from Elliana anyway.
“Hey,” he says.
“Is dinner ready?” My family has had dinner together since the dawn of time. It doesn’t matter if Dad has a late meeting at work. We will eat dinner at nine o’clock at night if it means eating together.
“Dad just got home.”
“You going to the football game after?” I ask.
“Ellie’s picking me up.”
He tosses a pillow at me. “Shut up.”
“What? I think it’s cute.”
Pete plops on my bed. I close my book. It isn’t normal. This. Us. Hanging out. We’ve never been close siblings. I love him. I’d do anything for him. He’s the only kid close to my age who I can talk to without breaking into hives. But we’re too different. And those differences have always created a wall between us.
“You can tag along if you want.”
“No, I can’t.”
“C’mon, Pete. You know exactly why not.”
“So people think you’re weird. Who cares?” This is why Pete has always been popular. He really doesn’t care. He has this laid back way about him that doesn’t fit the average fifteen-year-old. He can be in a room full of super popular seniors and his heart rate will remain completely steady. At times, it makes me want to judo chop him in the liver.
I hold up my book. “I’d rather spend the evening with Wally.”
Pete rolls his eyes, then picks at my comforter. “You know, Ellie and I were talking …”
“Why?” The word comes out with jagged edges.
“We’re intrigued.” He continues his picking, then looks up with Dad’s dark brown eyes. I inherited Mom’s navy blue ones. “We Googled Ouija boards.”
“Pete …” His name escapes on a sigh.
“No, listen, Tess. We found some really crazy stuff. Elliana thinks what you saw could’ve been real.”
Now it’s my turn for the eye-rolling. “Do you have any idea what Dad would say if he could hear you?”
“Who cares what Dad would say.”
“I was tired, Pete, and I have an overactive imagination. That’s all.” Lately, I’ve been contemplating the possibility that somehow, I fell asleep during the séance. That would make the most sense. Especially considering my nightmares. It’s a better option than being crazy. And it’s definitely better than Elliana’s theory. The thought makes me shudder. I don’t want any of what I saw to be real. “Just forget about it.”
The curious gleam in his eye doesn’t bode well. But before I can convince him to drop it, the door opens and our parents walk in. Mom wears that false, familiar smile she dons every year or two, whenever she and Dad sit us down in the living room to tell us the news. I know what they’re going to say before either utter a word. So does Pete. Because he flops back on my bed and groans.
We are moving.