Gabriella Batel

Teen Thrillers, Apocalypses, and a Little Magic

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Chapter 1

Four a.m. Must be if the pain’s this intense.

I sit up in bed with my head rested against my window, a fuchsia headscarf protecting my smooth scalp from the frost-edged glass. A small wooden crucifix is tangled in my fingers as I wait for my phone to chime. Not that I know how I’m going to tell him.

My eyes slip closed. There’s a void where there should be a set of eyelashes scraping against the window. At least my heartbeat seems normal today.

If this next treatment doesn’t work, then…

The wood of the crucifix bites into my hand as my fingers tighten around it. I shift my gaze to the small statue, a dart of pain splitting the backs of my eyes. Stray light from porchlights gives the iron corpus an icy glow.

I force my fingers to relax, and brush my thumb over His marked hand.

“Please,” I whisper.

It’s not much more than a breath between my dry lips. I’m never sure what I expect to come of it—nothing came of it last time. So I force out that one word, hoping it means more to Him.

There’s the chime.

I contain a grimace as I twist to face my glass nightstand, where my phone rests face down. My tactical knife sits folded behind it.

I extend my arm. The small expansion of my chest grinds, and my smooth heartrate spasms, but I manage to get ahold of my phone. The screen’s light cuts through the darkness, and I blink as my eyes adjust. Slowly, my lock screen comes into focus: the three of us at the wedding six months ago. Tristan in a white tuxedo. Mercedes in a long periwinkle dress. Me in a maroon gown to match my headwrap. All of us with our arms around each other. All laughing like the world was perfect. It was.

Where did that go?

I unlock the screen and go to my texts. From Tristan: Awake?

I swipe a return message with my thumb. Always.

I hit send, then darken the screen and drop the phone into my lap. The house is so still that the only sound is my wheezy breathing, until a second later, when there’s the gentle swish of a door opening down the hall. Long strides, socks dampening the noise against the laminate floor, and a tiny knock, more out of decorum than anything. I adjust my grasp on the crucifix as my doorknob turns and my stepbrother’s tall frame slips in. I could swear the space he needs to get in becomes smaller and smaller each time. He’s still strongly built, but he’s thinner ever since his dad was killed.

Tristan doesn’t meet my gaze. His head is tipped down, hiding his bright green eyes behind thick lashes. He shuts the door, careful to turn the knob so it doesn’t click and wake up Mercedes downstairs. And maybe my mom too. She should be on graveyard shift, but the pregnancy’s been harder lately, so I can’t assume.

Tristan strides across the room and draws back my thick dove-gray drapes. The fabric gives off a soft swish as it slides along the curtain rod. The whole time, Tristan clasps a folded pocketknife in his hand.

He sets himself down on the foot of my bed. And doesn’t look at me. I look at him—hold him hard with my gaze, waiting for a moment when our eyes will cross. But they never do. His line of sight is fastened on something outside.

My bare feet, resting on top of my blankets, tingle from the cold. I look outside with him.

Everything is covered in frost. Young trees, bared-branched in dormancy. Cookie-cutter houses encased in pastel vinyl. And the square of cement in front of our house where my mother held his father bleeding.

Tears spring up in my eyes. I blink them back.

My temple is numb from the cold and the pressure of the glass. I shift in my propped position, and as I do, a jab threads across my sternum all the way down my wrist. This time I can’t contain a grimace.

Now Tristan looks. He turns his head to me so that half of it is deathly pale in the moonlight and the other half is pitch dark. On either side, his eyes are tight at the corners.

His shoulder shifts. And next thing I know, his hand rests on my foot. His fingers are warm and leave soothing lines on my skin as he gently squeezes, careful of my tender joints and skin.

I wait for the corner of his mouth to prick back the way it used to, reassuring me. Not that I would get better, never promising something he couldn’t follow through with. But always promising that he was there.

It never comes.

I flex my jaw. “We set the date.”

Tristan’s green eyes search me for a few seconds, but nothing else about him moves. Not even his chest as he breathes. He’s completely still, as if paralyzed by an electric pulse.

When his lips finally open, it’s like watching a crack form in ice. “When?”

“Two months. I fly out March 9. The procedure’s two days later.”

For another moment, he doesn’t move. And when he does, it’s only a quiet nod. But I see through the calmness. A flex under his ear. A nervous squeeze of that pocketknife his father gave him. The way his eyes shift to and from me like he can’t bring himself to meet my eyes, but is afraid I’ll be gone if he looks away.

Then he looks down. I drop my eyes to the same place just as he slips both his hands around one of mine, the one with the crucifix, pressing my fingers around the wood. I didn’t realize I was shaking. A waft of his cedar bodywash fills my sore lungs.

I sigh quietly. “Tristan—”

But then my hand slips loose, trembling again once his touch is gone. Tristan’s line of sight shoots out the window. The motion catches my eye too.

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