Excerpt for An Unstill Life by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Published by Evernight Teen ® at Smashwords


Copyright© 2017 Kate Larkindale

ISBN: 978-1-77339-351-3

Cover Artist: Jay Aheer

Editor: CA Clauson


WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


For anyone searching for the strength to be themselves.


For John, for your encouragement and support and for your unwavering dedication to young readers and those who write for them.


Kate Larkindale

Copyright © 2017

Chapter One

The room was too small and the irregular buzzing that crept over the lopsided swinging doors set my teeth on edge. Each burst of sound sent a cloud of rusty orange scattering through my skull. I squirmed on the wooden bench, trying to avoid getting poked by loose splinters.

“Is this okay, Livvie?” Mel leaned over and pressed a slip of paper into my hand.

I studied it for a moment, still trying to shake off the burning color my synesthesia had painted the world. “Yeah. It’s perfect.” I grinned at her, but my lips trembled so much I’m sure it looked more like a grimace.

“What about yours?” Mel asked Hannah whose paper was crumpled in her fist.

Hannah smoothed hers against the taut fabric of her jeans, pressing out the wrinkles. “It’s good. I don’t think even Mom could tell she hadn’t signed it.”

Mel sighed and glanced down at her own scrap of paper. “At least they’re all different. And how closely are these guys going to look?”

Hannah’s eyes roved the enclosed space, photographs curling on every wall, layers of them tacked over each other like tattered scales. “It’s a business, right? They want to make money. I bet they just ask for these things ’cuz they have to.”

“You’re probably right.” Mel stood up and put her permission slip back into her pocket. “I wish they’d hurry up.”

“Me too.” I shifted again, my butt numbing against the hard bench. Coming here had seemed like a good idea, but now, after almost half an hour on the wrong side of the doors, with the stinging scent of rubbing alcohol drifting across us, I wasn’t so sure.

When the swinging doors whapped open and shut, the unexpected noise made me jump.

“You’re up.” The voice was deep and gruff.

We scrambled to our feet, pushing one another as we struggled not to be the first to enter the darkness beyond the doors. I ended up at the front and stepped through, taking a deep breath of air that tasted strangely metallic.

A table draped in white cloth sat beneath a single lamp. A large man sprawled in a battered desk chair beside the table. He had a lot of hair—on his face, on his head, curling out over the scoop neck of his tank top and covering his thick arms like an animal’s pelt.

“You girls got permission slips?” His eyes were dark brown, like chocolate drops or coffee beans, and they prowled over us.

“Uh… Yes.” Mel dug in her pocket and pulled out her forged document.

Hannah and I handed ours over, too, and watched as he peered at the signatures.

He tossed them into a bowl on the table behind him. “Who’s first?”

I lay on my side on the table and pulled my jeans down to expose my left hip. While the beefy man studied the stylized number 3 we’d chosen, I ran my fingers across the small, raised scar smeared across the bone. In a few minutes, that stark white reminder would be masked by a tattoo. I shivered.

“Scared?” Mel looked terrified, her face white, her eyes huge.

“Nah.” I shook my head. This hadn’t been my idea, but it felt right.

“So, why three?” The big man set the photocopied image on the table beside me and wiped something cold across my hip.

“There’s three of us,” Hannah explained. “And there’s power in threes.”

That was just part of it. Yes, we were a threesome, had been since we were eight, but there was more to it than that. Hannah and I had been friends forever. I couldn’t remember a time when we weren’t. When Mel came, it was like we’d been waiting for her, like she completed something. We’d been inseparable ever since. The three we were all going to have tattooed on our hip was a tribute to that. But three was important in so many other ways. We each had three in our family. We’d met when Mel moved to town and joined Hannah and me in Mrs. Lovell’s class, Room 3. The number three cycled through our lives on such a regular basis, we expected it, welcomed it.

“Nothin’ wrong with that.” The man coughed and picked up a tool from the table. “It’s gonna sting a little, but it won’t be too bad.”

The buzzing started, louder in here, flooding my vision with globs of red and yellow. I focused on it, letting the colors absorb me while the needle bit into my skin. I tried to keep the colors and patterns alive, vibrant, so I could paint them later.

“There, you’re done.” The man straightened up and the buzzing stopped, taking the colors with it. I studied the inch-long number that curved across my hipbone. The tattoo was black, permanent, the lines thicker than I’d imagined. Around the inky markings my skin was angry red, swelling already from the punishment.

“Here, wipe some of this on.” The man handed me a tube of white ointment. I smoothed some over the skin, and watched as he taped a square of plastic wrap over the new tattoo. “You’ll need to apply cream like that about four times a day. It’ll start itching, but don’t scratch it. Who’s next?”

I watched the man change the needle while Hannah and Mel argued in whispers about who would go next. Mel lost and climbed onto the table.

“It’s not so bad,” I told her.

* * * *

Hips stinging, we stumbled out into the afternoon sunlight.

“That wasn’t so terrible.” Mel tugged at the waistband of her jeans to sneak a peek at her new tattoo.

I couldn’t help but do the same. Blood oozed against the plastic, making me feel a little nauseous.

“It hurt,” Hannah sniffed. She’d started crying even before the needle touched her and hadn’t stopped since. “It still does.”

“Get over it.” Mel tossed her head. “What time is your sister picking us up?”

“Nine-thirty,” I said. “And guys, don’t you dare say anything to her about this. You know what Jules is like. She has that whole ‘your body is a temple’ thing going on. She’ll tear me limb from limb.”

“Our lips are sealed, right Hannah?” Mel gave her a glare.

“Yeah, okay.” Hannah sniffed again and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

We crossed the street and turned the corner, walking toward the mall that was the equivalent of tracks in our town. Anything south of the mall was considered a bad neighborhood, and the dingy tattoo parlor we’d visited was three blocks down from Bad, heading into Filthy and Dangerous.

We jostled through the main doors and headed toward the food court on the mall’s lower level. The large space seethed with people and competing food smells. I stopped just inside the doorway, the sudden rush of color and taste that the noise brought was almost too much. This was why I hated going to the mall. I forced the synesthesia toward the back of my mind.

“What should we eat?” I asked, following Mel and Hannah past the first row of food stalls. “And don’t let me forget to go to Archibald’s. I have to get some new paintbrushes.”

“Should we go to Gio’s?” Mel suggested.

Hannah made a gagging face at her, but we walked in that direction, shouldering our way through the queues. Mel stopped abruptly in front of me, and I stumbled, slamming my face into Mel’s back.

“Hey! Watch it,” I grumbled, giving her a shove with one hand while massaging my bruised nose with the other.

“Sam Taylor,” she hissed. “Look.”

I followed her gaze and saw him at a table just a few yards away, lounging in a chair, long legs splayed out in front of him. Three other guys sat with him, but they barely registered with me.

“Oh, my,” Hannah breathed, and when I glanced her way, I saw that her face had grown almost as red as her hair.

“Come on, guys.” I tried to drag them away, but it was like Sam had cast some kind of spell over them, and they were glued to the spot. I sighed. Ever since he started at our school last winter, he’d been the center of attention. Anyone new would have been conspicuous, but Sam stood out even more because he was gorgeous. And tall—almost six feet at sixteen and still growing. Mel, who stood five-feet-ten barefoot, had been smitten the moment she laid eyes on him. So was every other girl in the school. I had to admit, there was something about him. He kind of glowed.

After an eternity, I managed to move my stricken friends along. I hoped Sam hadn’t noticed them standing there like slack-jawed, drooling morons. So many people moved between us—moms wheeling babies in over-sized strollers, young guys who wrestled and punched at each other as if this was an arena—it was quite possible he hadn’t. Then again, he was probably so used to being stared at, he didn’t notice.

“Oh, man!” Mel threw herself into a booth near the front of Gio’s. “I think he grew. He looks taller every time I see him. His legs are like nine miles long.”

Hannah nodded her head. “He’s gonna be a freak.”

“Or a basketball player,” I added.

“I decided something.” Mel pulled herself to her full height, lurching forward in a way that commanded attention. “I’m going to the winter formal with Sam Taylor.”

I laughed. “Yeah? How’re you going to manage that?”

“He’s going to ask me.” Mel looked serious, so I swallowed back my laughter and forced my lips into a more sober line.

“You know that … how?” Hannah pursed her lips, skepticism painting every word with a splash of mustard-yellow.

Mel shrugged. “Well, there’s about three months ’til the dance. I figure I can catch his eye in that time. And you two will help me, won’t you?”

Hannah and I exchanged glances. We knew this would turn into another of Mel’s crazy schemes, like liberating the frogs from the biology classroom. Or the tattoo that still burned against my hip. But at least I could recognize this as being nuts from the start. And since Mel was gorgeous, even if her height did make her self-conscious, she had as good a chance as anyone of getting Sam’s attention. Certainly a better chance than I’d have.

“So, anyone caught your eye yet?” Hannah slouched in the corner of the booth and turned toward me. Somehow she managed to make even slouching look elegant.

I could have used a little of her dancer’s poise. “Not really. I mean, it’s the same old crowd, isn’t it?”

“I know.” Mel peeled the paper off a straw and blew it in my direction. “I thought there might be some interesting new boys, but they’re all the same duds.” Mel tossed the menu she’d been scanning back onto the table. “I think Sam Taylor is the only boy in the whole school I’d be willing to kiss. And that’s kind of tragic in a school that’s over eight hundred kids.”

“If Sam’s the only one you’re willing to kiss, how come you locked lips with Eddie Fletcher?” Hannah grinned. “Or did you forget about that?”

Mel flushed. “It wasn’t a real kiss. I had to congratulate him on winning the cross-country, didn’t I? I mean, we’re on the same team.”

“Looked real to me…” I muttered as I watched the waitress march over to our table, pen hovering over her pad.

After the waitress took our order, Mel changed the subject. “Do you think I should dye my hair?” She pulled out her compact and studied her reflection. Cut close to her head, the dark blonde shone under the overhead lights, the color tasting cool and spicy, like wasabi. Her bangs were streaked lighter in places, evidence of the time she spent running in the sun.

“What color?” Hannah sat up, her spine lengthening.

“I was thinking maybe red?” Mel grabbed a lock of Hannah’s auburn hair and held it close to her face. “Does it suit me?”

I studied Mel’s strong-boned face. “I think you need something darker. Your skin’s too olive to look right with that color. Maybe a dark chocolate, or something.”

“That could be nice.” Mel considered her reflection for a moment longer, then put the mirror away. “Maybe with a little chestnut highlight in it or something. Like Elise Barrowman’s.”

I nodded. “That’s what I was thinking. Something bitter.”

Hannah glanced my way but said nothing. My friends had learned not to comment when my descriptions sounded weird to them. I’d tried to explain my synesthesia, but neither of them could understand the way I tasted colors and saw sounds.

“Talking about Elise, did you hear what she did?” Hannah leaned across the table.

“What?” Mel’s head practically touched Hannah’s.

“Well, she was at camp, right? And there was this guy—”

“Here you are, ladies.” The waitress dropped two steaming pizzas onto the table, the silver trays clattering against the wooden tabletop, cutting Hannah off. “Enjoy.”

“Thanks,” I said, but she had already spun away.

I helped myself to a generous wedge, picking curls of pepperoni off it and popping them into my mouth. “Mmmmmm. This is so good.”

“I’ll say.” Mel bit off a huge chunk, making a show of licking her lips with delight. “Dare you to eat some.” She held the piece out to Hannah who recoiled and shook her head, one hand across her flat, dancer’s stomach.

“Go on, Han,” I said, shoving the tray in her direction. With her mouth full, maybe she’d stop gossiping. “One slice won’t kill you.”

“Probably not, but do you know how many calories are in just one piece?” The look of horror on her face was enough to make me giggle. Imagine being afraid of pizza.

“You sound like my sister.” I pulled another slice from the tray and took a huge bite.

“You should listen to her. She knows a ton about nutrition and stuff.” Hannah sucked hard on her Diet Coke.

“She’s obsessed with it.” I raised my eyes to the ceiling. Every mealtime was a lecture at my house, and the list of things Jules wouldn’t eat grew longer each week. Mom gave up cooking for her two years ago. But Jules still tried to force her kelp juice and organic lentils on both of us. “I hope she doesn’t see me here. I don’t feel like hearing her ‘evils of cheese’ speech today.”

“Well, you can’t really blame her.” Hannah snagged an abandoned pizza crust and nibbled on it, avoiding errant streaks of cheese.

“Yeah, I guess.” I dropped my eyes to the floor. Hannah was the one who knew me when Jules was sick. Mel came later.

When we finished eating, we headed back upstairs so I could pick up the things I needed at Archibald’s. I loved that place. I could’ve spent my life there. The store was tucked away in the corner of the mall, behind the depressing little pet store that seemed to only ever have one or two scrawny puppies or kittens caged behind a great bank of algae-infested fish tanks. The scents of paint and linseed oil cut through the stale cat piss and drew me in like a magnet. My heart sped up as we grew nearer, anticipation making my palms damp.

A display of canvasses just outside the door stopped me. I ran my fingers across them, feeling the taut fabric stretched across the frames. I didn’t have enough money to buy any, but that didn’t keep me from coveting one.

“Come on, Livvie.” Hannah sounded like a whiny child, her high-pitched voice shooting darts of crimson. “Just get the brushes or whatever. I need to go to Capezio. Can you believe I wore out three pairs of pointe shoes at that summer school?”

“Yeah, okay.” I gave the largest canvas a last lingering look as I shuffled through the door.

“Hey! Look where you’re going, why don’t you!” The voice crashed over me, inky black, pierced by silver spears.

“Oh! I’m sorry—” I stepped back, away from the person I’d plowed into. I bent to pick up the pencils and tubes of paint that had rained to the floor. Scooping up the last one, my hand brushed the steel-capped toe of a heavy black boot. Only one person would be wearing boots like that in this weather. I stood slowly and found myself looking into the pale, pinched face of Bianca Mattheson.

“Here. I think I got them all.” I handed her the stuff.

She snatched the objects out of my hand and whirled away in a cloud of black clothing. “Watch where you’re going next time.”

I almost ran to the display of paintbrushes, my cheeks on fire. Of all the people to smack into.

“Don’t worry about her,” Mel said. “She’s a total whack job.”

“Yeah. What’s she even doing here? They don’t sell voodoo dolls or pentacles here.” Hannah joined us by the brushes. Bianca was weird, no question about it. It wasn’t the black clothes and hair, or the scarlet slash of her mouth, but the attitude she wore them with. It was like she didn’t care what anyone thought of her, like the whispers that followed her didn’t touch her.

I grabbed a handful of brushes, but before I paid for them, I checked to make sure Bianca’s malevolent presence had left the store. “C’mon, you guys. We’d better hurry up. Jules’ll leave without us if we’re not there to meet her on time.”

“Do I have time to go order my shoes?” Hannah asked as we hurried out, not even seeing the pathetic looking beagle whose mournful eyes followed us as we passed the pet store.

Chapter Two

Murmuring voices and padding footsteps in the hall outside my door woke me from a sound sleep. Hannah snored in bed next to me. I glanced at the clock. Three thirty-seven a.m. Who could be up at this hour? Mom had already been in bed when Jules brought Mel, Hannah, and me back from the mall. And Jules would kill for her eight hours of sleep. Then I heard voices again, low but urgent, rimmed in red. Mom’s voice, then one I thought belonged to Jules.

I climbed out of bed, taking care not to trip over Mel, whose lanky physique and blanket hogging relegated her to the floor during sleepovers. I negotiated my way through the darkness. The thin curtains filtered the moonlight trickling between the leaves hanging outside my window. I grasped the door handle and turned it, careful not to let it squeal. The hallway light shone so brightly, it made me squint. Closing the door, I stumbled into the corridor, toes curling against the cool wooden floorboards. I cocked my head, listening for the sounds that had woken me.

Mom darted out of her room, dressed, but with her hair corkscrewing in wild curls about her head.

“Mom?” I stepped toward her.

She jumped. “Oh, Livvie. You gave me a fright. What are you doing up?”

“What’s going on?” I rubbed sleep from my eyes. “I heard voices.”

“Jules had a nosebleed. It won’t stop, so I’m going to run her over to the hospital. Just in case, you know?”

“It’s not—” My voice dropped off, my stomach tightening into a knot. We didn’t use the ‘c’ word in our house. Ever since Jules got better, it was almost religious. Like if we never said it, there was no way it could happen again.

“Oh, no. I don’t think so.” Mom’s voice was too high pitched, and her lips trembled as she shaped the shiny silver words. “But it’s better to be safe than sorry, right?”

“I guess so.” I trailed after her as she started down the stairs. When we reached the bottom, I could hear Jules crying. Mom grabbed a jacket from the closet in the hall and hurried into the kitchen. I followed, unsure what else to do.

Jules sat at the kitchen table, head tilted back so far, her hair almost brushed the tiled floor. She held a towel against her face, the thick fabric turning scarlet as if by magic. That was a lot of blood. A lot. Too much. I could taste it in a nasty metallic coating on my tongue.

Mom wrapped the jacket around Jules’s shoulders and helped her to her feet. “We really should go.” She glanced at the towel, eyes skating over it then skittering away.

“Do you want me to come?” I watched Jules reposition the towel. Another pristine white patch crimsoned.

“No. Your friends are here.” Mom led Jules to the door, car keys clutched in her free hand. “You’re going to be fine, Julie. We’re going to take you to see the doctor, okay?” In an instant Jules was a child again, not the seventeen-year-old she was.

“Okay.” Jules’s voice was little more than a choked whisper, smoky and thick.

“I hope you’re okay, Jules,” I said.

“Thanks,” she whispered, giving me a shaky smile.

“We’ll be back as soon as we can, Livvie.” Mom almost left without saying goodbye. “Why don’t you just go back to bed?”

“Okay.” But I didn’t move. I closed the glass door behind them and watched as the car backed out of the garage and sped down the street, out of sight.

For a long time I just stood there, watching my breath fog the glass, then disappear. When I realized my feet were cold, I looked down, studying the way my toes splayed across the creamy coffee-colored tile. I yawned. Standing vigil in the kitchen wasn’t going to help my sister. I flicked off the light, plunging the room into darkness.

I stumbled up the stairs in a daze. Jules couldn’t be sick again. She couldn’t. It was like a prayer, but I didn’t pray. In the hall outside my room, someone moved toward me, and I started.

“Livvie?” It was Mel.


“What’s going on?” Moonlight spilled through the window at the end of the hall, making her skin glow ghostly white. Her hair stuck up in crazier whorls than Mom’s.

“Jules is sick. Mom took her to the hospital.”

Mel’s eyes widened. “Oh, shit. Do you think she’ll be okay?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. I hope so.” The words seemed inadequate. Hope? I needed her to be okay. I needed it as much as I needed air to live.

“Do you think it’s the leukemia? Do you think it’s come back?” Mel broke the cardinal rule, but I didn’t care. Sometimes things just need to be said. There’s nothing wrong with black and white—it’s the shades of gray that cause problems.

“I don’t know,” I repeated. “I hope not. God, I hope not.” I said almost to myself, repeating the words like a litany. I rubbed at my left hip, thinking about the last time Jules was sick, about the way I saved her. The square of plastic crinkled, and I winced as my fingers ran across the fresh tattoo.

“Did it hurt?” Mel asked after a long silence.


“When you did it. Did it hurt?”

“You mean the transplant?”

“Yeah.” She nodded, and I watched the purple word fall and splatter on the floor— untouchable, poisonous. This was a subject we never touched, never even got close to.

We were silent. The only sound came from my fingernails digging into the soft skin of my scalp as I dragged my hand through my hair.

“It hurt,” I said finally, the words dragged up from the depths of the ocean, dark and dripping. I never talked about this. I didn’t even like to think about it. “They told me it wouldn’t, but it did.” I stopped, remembering it—the burning pain in the site where they sucked the marrow from my bones, and worse, the fear. I tried to shake the feelings off. What I did was nothing. Jules was the one who really suffered. And her fear had to be so much bigger than mine. I mean, what if her body rejected my marrow after all that? “It was worse for her.”

“Well, yeah. Of course.” Mel lolled against the wall awkwardly. “We should go back to bed.”

“I don’t think I can.” I scratched a mosquito bite on my ankle, watching it redden as my nails scraped across the swollen skin. Just hours ago we’d been teasing Jules about her obsessive control over her diet, commenting on how thin she looked.

“You should try.” Mel led me the few steps to my door. “Your mom’s probably going to need you tomorrow. Not to mention Jules.”

“You’re right. Thanks, Mel.”

“Any time.” She poked her tongue out at me and eased the creaky bedroom door closed behind us.

* * * *

Buttery sunlight spread across my bed, warming my face through the curtains. Something was wrong. The tightness in my belly told me so, as did the weight resting on my heart. I forced my eyes open and stared up at the ceiling. The curtains shifted in the gentle breeze drifting through the open window and sent shadows waltzing across the roof. I rolled over and peeked off the edge of the bed. Mel lay curled up on the air mattress, her face mashed into a pillow. The space in the bed next to me was empty, the quilt turned down neatly, the pillow straight and plumped. Hannah was such a neat freak.

I stretched, feeling every bone and muscle in my back and chest, then stretched further until my stomach screamed for me to stop. I should get up, I thought. But I was so comfortable here. So safe. As long as I stayed in bed, I wouldn’t have to go downstairs and face the news from the hospital. If I stayed put, Jules wouldn’t be sick.

“Stupid,” I muttered. The news would be the same whether I heard it now or tomorrow. Better to get it over with. For all I knew, Jules was home, the whole incident already fading into a frightening memory.

With a sigh, I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. I thought about waking Mel, but she was such a bear in the morning. I left her snoring and slipped out of the room. The tattoo throbbed dully, but I thought the pain was a little less than it had been yesterday. I headed toward the kitchen, knowing Mom’s need for caffeine would make that her first destination. A flicker of movement caught my eye as I passed the living room. Hannah, still in her pajamas, stood with her back to me, one hand resting on the back of a chair she was using as a barre. She stretched one leg out, then the other, rising onto the balls of her feet before she turned and lowered herself back onto her heels. Her hair hung loose to her waist, a great mass of cinnamon curls that swung in arcs behind her as she moved.

“Oh! Livvie, you scared me.” She gave a sharp laugh and clutched at her chest. “I woke up early and thought I’d get my stretches in before you and Mel woke up.”

“That’s fine.” I shrugged. “Have you seen my mom?”

She shook her head. “No. Haven’t seen anyone yet. And it’s after nine.”

“Is it?” I turned my eyes to the clock on the wall. Nine minutes after nine. Where were they? A flock of birds took off from somewhere in the pit of my stomach and fluttered aimless circles through my midsection.

“Livvie?” Hannah let go of the chair-back and crossed to where I stood. “What’s wrong?”

I thought about shaking it off, telling her everything was fine, but I couldn’t lie to her. Not to Hannah. “Mom had to take Jules to the hospital in the middle of the night. I guess they’re not back yet.”

Hannah paled. Her arm came around my shoulders, warm and heavy, comforting. “Oh, Liv. I’m sorry.”

“It might not be the … you know. She had a nosebleed. It wouldn’t stop, so they went in. Just to be safe, you know?” I hated the pleading tone in my voice. Like I was trying to convince myself. But even I didn’t believe me.

“I’m sure it’s nothing.” There was dull lead in her words. She wanted to make me feel better, and I wished it could work.

The telephone rang, making me jump. I reached to pick it up. My hand sank into the leaping orange flames that shot up with each electronic bray. The color was so intense I could taste the heat, and for a moment the sensory overload was so great, I couldn’t even move to pick up the receiver. Hannah did, and handed it to me. I was surprised when it wasn’t hot.


“Livvie?” My mother’s voice tumbled down the line.

“It’s me. What’s going on?” My knuckles ached from the force with which I held the phone to my ear. “Is Jules okay?”

“They’re doing tests.” Mom’s weariness blurred her words. “We probably won’t know anything until Monday.”

Monday? It was Saturday morning. “Are you coming home?” I hated the pitch of my voice, like some frightened little kid, like I was five, not fifteen.

“Later. I just wanted you to know what’s going on. Try not to worry too much. It might not be anything.” The words rang false, brittle and yellow. She was worried. And why wouldn’t she be?

“Okay. I’ll see you later on then.”

“See you.” The phone went dead in my hand.

“Well?” Hannah had her hands on her hips. “What’s going on?”

“They don’t know yet.” The weight of my mother’s words became too much for me, and I stumbled to the couch, falling into the soft cushions. “They’re doing tests.”

“Oh, Livvie…” Her voice trailed off, and I could tell she didn’t know what else to say. There wasn’t anything else to say. There were no answers, just an endless procession of questions.

“C’mon,” I said, after the silence had gone on too long to even be called uncomfortable anymore. “Let’s go wake Mel up and make pancakes. It’s not going to do anyone any good if we starve to death, is it?”

Chapter Three

I needed to dress carefully for school on Monday, in clothes that would barricade me from the prying looks and questions I knew would bombard me as soon as I walked through the gates. My friends would be there, but nothing could protect me from the frenzied curiosity. For a moment, I thought about crawling back into bed and hiding out there for the rest of the day. That wasn’t an answer though. I’d just lie there and worry. School would distract me, if nothing else. Maybe.

I grabbed my favorite jeans off the floor and tugged them on before going to the closet to see what I could wear on top. After trying on every one of my t-shirts—too tight, too revealing, too baggy, too lame—I settled on a long-sleeved cotton blouse. It hung to mid-thigh and was a brilliant shade of salmon pink that tasted oddly of caraway seeds. It reminded me of the dark bread my grandfather used to make. I found that comforting for some reason. That’s why I bought it, even though pink—any shade of pink—wasn’t my color. Pink was Jules’s.

The kitchen was silent and empty. Mom must not have come home. Again. Apart from the hour and half yesterday afternoon—long enough to grab a shower and a few things for Jules—she’d been at the hospital since Friday night. I pulled the orange juice carton out of the fridge and poured what was left into a glass. I drank the trickle of juice. The clock on the microwave flicked from seven thirty-two to seven thirty-three. I needed to go. The bus would be at the corner at seven forty.

I sat alone on a torn vinyl seat and stared out the window at the lawns and houses of suburbia that soon gave way to a light commercial area. The school sat on the edge of this, the athletic fields edging out toward the rows of warehouses that marked the beginning of the city’s industrial sector. I bit my lip and watched the throngs of kids moving toward the building like messy columns of ants. I’d arranged to meet Mel and Hannah at the top of the stairs, and I strained to see them through the shifting masses. A gaggle of girls in short cheerleader skirts walked by, and my heart sped up. Jules should’ve been in that crowd, right in the middle of it. Instead, she was stuck in a hospital bed.

I climbed the stairs slowly, trying not to look to either side of me. I didn’t want any of Jules’s friends to catch my eye. I had no idea if she’d called any of them and didn’t want to be the one to explain. I doubted any of the other cheerleaders knew she’d ever had cancer. It wasn’t something she talked about.

“Hey, Livvie!” Hannah leaned over the railing. “Get up here!”

Mel’s head appeared beside her. “Yeah, move that skinny ass of yours.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m coming.” I hurried up the steps and joined them at the top, leaning against the sun-warmed bricks. “So, what’s going on?”

“Look!” Mel jutted her chin across the broad landing, and I saw a group of boys lounging on the far side, Sam Taylor amongst them. “Is it just me, or does he get hotter every day?”

I brushed my hair away from my eyes, trying to be inconspicuous as I studied him. Tall and blond, Sam rocked restlessly back and forth on his heels. His hands moved as he talked, the gestures extravagant. “I guess…” I said. I wasn’t sure I thought he was handsome, but there was something about him that drew my eyes in his direction. A glow or halo-like aura. Anyone standing near him seemed to fade into the background.

“Should I go over and say hi or something?” Mel dug a mirror out of her backpack and ran her fingers through her hair, squinting at her reflection. “We’ve been back from vacation a week, and I still haven’t talked to him.”

“Make it casual, if you do,” Hannah warned. “Liv, we have to walk with her.”

“What?” I’d already lost the thread of conversation. The boys must have noticed us watching, because they got louder, started shoving one another harder. I looked away, Sam’s glow fading as the others crossed into his space. Why were boys such idiots? “Okay. Now.” Mel took my arm and tugged me, Hannah trailing along behind. We slowed as we approached the boys. I recognized some of them, but only knew a few by name.

“Hi, Sam,” Mel purred, her voice all creamed butter and sugar. “Did you have a nice summer?”

Sam stumbled against Jason Davis and would have fallen if Jason hadn’t pushed him back. “Uhh… Yeah. I guess so. What about you?”

“Pretty good.” She nodded. “I had a couple of weeks at the beach. That was good.”

“Lucky you.” Sam’s eyes slid over Mel and rested on Hannah. “Hey, Hannah. How was your summer?”

She shrugged. “I went to a summer school. You know, dancing? It was cool.”

He nodded, then turned his attention back to his friends. “Dude, you should’ve seen this guy on Friday night at the pool—”

I poked Mel until she started walking again. If I hadn’t, she probably would’ve stood there all day, staring at Sam. She said nothing until we were inside the building, the clash of lockers opening and shutting creating a bruised purple cloud.

“How could you?” She turned on Hannah.

“How could I what?” Hannah’s delicate features creased in confusion.

“You know I like him! How could you?”

“What did I do?” Hannah’s eyes left Mel’s distraught face and came to rest on mine. “Livvie?”

“Come on, you guys.” I sighed. Mel was making way too much of this. Yes, Sam called Hannah by her name, but that didn’t mean anything. At least, I didn’t think it did. I was no expert at this stuff. “You can’t fight over something this stupid. He talked to both of you.” He hadn’t spoken to me, hadn’t even acknowledged me. But boys never talked to me. I don’t think they even saw me. I was just a blur behind Mel and Hannah, or a shadow trailing after Jules.

“But—” The bell rang then, a sharp yellow interruption that sent a tsunami of kids plunging down the hallways. I grabbed Hannah’s arm to keep her from being swept away, watching as Mel was carried along toward her homeroom.

* * * *

By lunch, Mel appeared to have forgotten her anger. I found her and Hannah already at our usual table in the lunchroom. I grabbed my tray and hurried across to them. We weren’t in any of the same classes, so I hadn’t seen them since this morning.

“Hey, what book are you doing in English?” I slid into my seat across from them. “Mr. Hamilton assigned short stories by Edgar Allen Poe. They’re so totally creepy.” I shivered.

Hannah groaned. “Don’t even ask.” She and Mel were stuck with Miss Halsey, the same English teacher we’d all shared last year. “You’re so lucky. We got Shakespeare. And not even a good one like Romeo and Juliet. We have to read Henry the Fourth or the Fifth or something. Can you believe that?”

I nodded. I planned this year to pull something higher than a D+. At least in English. Well, maybe. I sucked at school. It was so hard to concentrate on Algebra or Shakespeare when I never knew what sound or phrase might change the color of the world around me.

“Bummer! That’ll be—” My cell-phone vibrated in my pocket, and I jumped. Pulling it out, I flipped it open and saw Mom on the display. “My mom,” I mouthed at their curious faces. “Mom? What’s up?”

“Livvie? Look, I’m so sorry to call you at school. Are you at lunch?” Mom’s words wobbled all over the place, unstable jelly the color of a robin’s eggs.

I clutched the phone harder. “Yeah. What’s going on?”

“Oh, Livvie. It’s Jules. The tests came back this morning. It’s not good news, honey. The leukemia’s back.”

My heart plummeted into the pit of my stomach. My head whirled, and for a moment I couldn’t even breathe. I sensed my friends’ stares and dropped my eyes to the tabletop, tracing my fingers around and around a word gouged into the wood: S-U-C-K-S.

“Oh, Mom. That’s… That… That sucks.” My face burned. Did I just say that to my mother? I jerked my hand away from the graffiti. I hadn’t lied. It did suck. It worse than sucked. “Do I need to come home now or something?”

“No, nothing like that. I just thought you should know. We’re going to talk to the doctors this afternoon about treatment options. Maybe you could come down here after school?”

“Uh… Sure. Okay. I will.” I looked down again, my eyes drawn to that word once again—sucks. What sucks? The phone went dead and I dropped it back in my pocket. I slid my tray away, the smell of food making me nauseous. Life sucks, I read. Yeah. That’s about right. Too true, my vandal friend.

“Hey, where’s Jules?” I looked up and found myself staring into the perky face of Jenna Malone, a small posse of cheerleaders standing behind her. “We have to organize tryouts for the team. She choreographed all the routines last week, so we’re ready for the newbies to come on board.”

“Sick,” I managed. It felt like a lie. Sick was a cold. Sick was a puking stomach flu. I wished that was all Jules had.

“Oh, that’s a bummer.” Jenna frowned and stared around, stopping when she caught sight of Hannah moving around the table, her still-full tray in her hands. “What’s your name?”

“Mine?” Hannah stopped. “Hannah. Why?”

“You move well. You ever thought about trying out for the squad?” Jenna’s relentlessly perky voice sent crimson ribbons splattering across the table. I wanted her to shut up. Cheerleading isn’t important. Tryouts aren’t important. Your best friend is lying in a hospital bed. But if she hasn’t told you that, well, I’m not going to be the one to do it.

“Livvie?” Mel’s voice was right by my ear. Her hand on my arm was cool. “C’mon.” She led me out of the lunchroom, down the hall, and out one of the side doors. The sun blinded me for a moment, reflecting off the pristine cement. I closed my eyes against it and let myself sag against the building. When I opened them again, I saw someone staring at me. Bianca Mattheson sat in the shade of a tree a few feet away, her black skirts spread in a circle around her. Blades of ebony hair slashed across her forehead and down onto her face, and peeking out between them, her blue eyes were fixed unwaveringly on me.

“Stare much, freak?” Mel crossed the path and glared down at Bianca. She didn’t even blink, just kept staring at me as if Mel wasn’t even there. I shivered despite the sun’s intense heat. What did she want? It was like she could see into my soul, was reading my innermost thoughts and secrets. I wanted to know why.

I peeled myself away from the wall and grabbed Mel’s arm. “I’m okay, Mel,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”

Mel hesitated for a second, then turned away. “That girl has something seriously wrong with her.”

“Yeah, maybe.” I shivered again. “Let’s find Hannah. The bell’s going to ring any minute.”

“What’s your first class after lunch?” Mel dug through her bag for her schedule then groaned. “I have gym.”

I checked my own. It always took me about three weeks to memorize it. “Art,” I said. My shoulders relaxed a little. After that lunch hour, I needed the hour of peace Art could give me.

* * * *

When I walked into the art room ten minutes later, I just about walked straight back out again. Sitting right in front of me was Bianca Mattheson. I groaned inside. Of course. I’d forgotten. How could I be expected to open up, express myself in a creative way with her spooky presence flapping blackly around my consciousness? I’d hardly noticed her last year, but suddenly, she seemed to pop up around every corner.

I’d stopped right inside the doorway when I saw her, and people started pushing me from behind. I managed to shuffle into the room and find a space as far away from Bianca as possible. Arranged in a horseshoe, the seats all gave me a view of her, and her of me, but at least I didn’t need to sit near her.

I snuck a peek at her as Mrs. DeWinter entered the room. Everyone focused on the chaotic whirlwind that became our teacher, but I only saw Bianca. Her wrists, protruding from the long, draped sleeves of her dress, were pale and delicate, leading to small, long-fingered hands that flashed with silver rings. Her hair fell around her face in sharp, inky slices. She wore heavy boots despite the heat outside and their silver buckles gleamed under the florescent lights. I could feel her. I could taste her the way I tasted colors. I expected bitter or sour, but the flavor she exuded was sweet, almost fruity, reminding me of raspberries, my favorite berry.

“Now that I’ve seen what you can do, for the first part of the semester,” Mrs. DeWinter was saying, “we’re going to focus on still life. I know many of you prefer a more abstract style.” She looked right at me, a small smile at her lips. “But it is important to master representational art as well. Once you have the basics of realistic perspective and lighting, you can explore the infinite variations in your imaginations.” She walked toward a table in the center of the room and whisked off the plum-colored cloth that covered it. Underneath was an arrangement of fruit—apples, oranges, bananas and limes—with a few flowers nestled amongst them for contrast. The colors tasted like smoke with a sharp bite of peppermint underneath. Mixed with Bianca’s berry flavor, the combination made me feel sick. Maybe it had been a bad idea to skip lunch.

“Today, I would like you to focus on sketching the still life. Once you have a serviceable sketch, we will move on to painting. Get to work.” Mrs. DeWinter raised her arms and let them fall again, as if she were waving a flag to start a motor race. I took a deep breath to calm my roiling stomach, pulled out a sketchbook, and began to draw. The dull scrape of pencil on paper soothed me. It was a peaceful sound, pale peach. I fell into it and let it swallow me for the rest of the hour, grateful for the escape.

Chapter Four

The city bus creaked to a stop outside the hospital. I stepped off and listened to the doors wheeze shut behind me. The main building loomed above, blocking out the sunlight. I stood in its shadow and breathed for a few minutes, wanting to keep a taste of the outdoors, of summer and sun, in my mouth before I walked through the door.

When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I stepped up to the entrance and waited for the glass doors to glide open with their odd whisper-hiss. The smell hit me before I even walked inside, a sharp bleach scent that did little to cover the underlying stench of bodies failing their owners. I hated that smell. It dragged me back in time, made me feel like a little kid again, frightened, lonely, and hurting.

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