Chapter One: Renzy

 

“I FOUND the box, Cassi! Why did you keep the box?”

“Oh, like you suddenly care about me or anything I do!”

“Of course I care, you ridiculous, infuriating woman! I care when you’re making a fool out of me! I care if you’re lying again!”

 

They woke me up with their screaming again.

Must be a Monday. Or a Sunday. Or any day ending with a y.

Pick pretty much any moment, and you’ll find my parents shouting so loud and slamming things around so hard, it actually shakes the windowpanes in my old, attic room.

They’re real good at hiding these explosions… usually. I think they try their best not to traumatize the kids. That means everyone must already be gone. If I had to guess, I’d say Kendall and Flora are on the bus to school, buh-bye, and Jackie’s still at Gran’s from his sleepover last night.

Nope. Mom and Dad would never shout in front of their children.

Except…

They’ve forgotten I’m still here.

It doesn’t bother me. Really, it doesn’t, not the way you think it would. I’m used to being invisible. I do wish they’d let me sleep, though.

Sometimes if I turn my record player up loud enough, they can hear it over their shouting and they’ll stop. So that’s what I do this morning. I blast a lil’ Random Access Memories to get the day started. Electronica to soothe the soul.

But no matter how loud I turn up the tracks, the yelling doesn’t stop. I can still hear them, but they can’t seem to hear me. Or they don’t care.

You ever stick your fingers in your ears and plug ’em good and tight? You can hear this rushing noise, like the ocean in a conch shell. But no matter how deep you shove those fingers in, you still can’t block it all out.

Unless you were deaf in the first place.

I wonder when my parents went deaf.

 

 

RATHER THAN go to my morning classes, I decide to head over to Heart Aflame—it’s like a collection of groups that meet in the basement of the Word of Life Community Church. It’s raining and I’m soaked by the time I arrive. I hang out on the floor in the bathroom for a while, hand above my head, pressing the button for the hand dryer. It’s warmish, but doing crap-all for drying out my clothes.

Last time this happened, I went to the church’s clothes donation box, but everything there had a sort of weird smell.

My shoes squelch as I walk down the hall. It’s fine. They’ll dry out eventually. The room where they hold the different sessions gets really hot anyway. Warm, not wild. Though I guess anger management can get pretty heated.

There’s something great and awful about group therapy, especially when you’re watching it from a distance and not participating. It doesn’t matter what the players in the group are trying to overcome, abstaining from, grieving for, or dying of, it’s always the same. When human beings sit in a circle, they become cliché.

I’d be a cliché too if I pulled up a chair.

“Renzy, you’re early.”

I nod at Amber who’s mixing up punch while the coffeepot percolates away on the counter.

“You might want to avoid today’s sesh, though,” she continues without pausing. “Rape victims. All women. They may give you shit for leering.”

They host a bunch of different groups out of this church, but Amber fixes refreshments for them all. I think she’s the pastor’s daughter or something. Maybe she gets paid to lay out store-bought cookies and judgment. Whatever reason, she’s always here.

I walk over to my corner near the large bay window and plop down with my bag. It takes me a moment to find the perfect spot, right under the heater, but once there, the squelchy shoes are gone.

I’ve listened from the edge of this group before. The leader also leads several others, including Gaming Addiction and Cancer Survivors. I think she lets me stay in the Take Back Our Power group because she wants the women to know they don’t have to be afraid of all men. Or maybe she thinks they won’t notice me.

I pull my sketchbook out of my bag—it’s a little wet at the corners, and the ink on one of my better pieces has blurred. I stare down at the wet spot. Maybe that’s what I should get for my first real tattoo: an ink blot.

I touch the wet page, and black stains my fingertips. I press it against my arm where faded ballpoint pen stains my skin.

It isn’t long before the women begin to wander in. Some of them are nervous and quiet, clutching their purses like shields; others are chatty and easygoing. Like normal, I get a few looks, but most don’t even mind me. They know I’m nobody.

Then she walks through the open door.

A whole room of stimuli and the first thing this girl does is cut her eyes over at me and tighten her thin arms around her even thinner frame. Then she looks away.

Everything about her is long and elegant, like she’s a handblown glass pipette. She has sharply cut white-blonde hair that bounces around her waist, pale skin, cheeks that are either flushed or swiped with blush, powder-pink nails, a giraffe’s neck, and legs that have been pulled like taffy. She is the definition of sorrowful elegance.

She’s like those perfume bottles my mother used to collect.

She is a blue swan. She is the scent of midnight.

Except instead of gathering dust in our garage like Mom’s collection, this glamorous, strange girl is picking lint off her skirt and pretending she never saw me.

If I were into girls, I would be in love with this one. I’d fall instantly, head-over-heels in love. Instead, I’m in fascination.

“We’re glad you came back, Morning.”

That’s Ms. Allison, the leader of this group. She might also be a cancer survivor and a gambler? No one calls her Ms. Allison, though. They all call her Ally, even though she’d prefer they were more respectful. I see it in her eyes; there’s a little bit of hurt there.

Someone must have used her nickname in vain once, I think, and now she hates the sound of it.

Poor Ms. Allison, but fascinating Morning.

Morning, Morning, Morning. What a name!

Morning shrugs a bony shoulder at the facilitator. She’s wearing a sweater that swallows her.

“What’s he doing here?” Morning asks. She has a really lovely voice. Too bad it’s so cold. “I don’t want anyone listening.”

“Oh, you’ll get used to Renzy,” Ms. Allison says. “He’s a frequent visitor to our various groups. Don’t worry about him.”

Morning looks over at me, narrowing her eyes.

I’ve been studying her, but now I let her know it. I lift my head and gaze at her widow’s peak, at her light eyebrows, at her nose that turns up just a touch at the very end. I stare at her, and I memorize her features for my sketchbook. Then I smile.

“Stop looking at me. Freak.”

“There’s no need for name-calling, Morning,” Ms. Allison says. “Don’t mind Renzy. He won’t bother you, I promise.”

Another woman in the group assures Morning that I’m cool; I’m a great listener. A nervous giggle breaks out between two of the women.

 

 

I GUESS I should probably go to math and my science lab at least. I have homework to turn in and a quiz in math, plus lab is kinda fun.

Everyone’s changing classes as I walk through the front doors of Redcliff Hills High School. (Go Killer Bees!) I sling my bag around to the front of my body and dig in one of the side pockets for the thick stack of excuses Mom wrote up for me. I didn’t even ask her for them. I just found them on my dresser one day.

At first I thought maybe she was being considerate, I guess. Now… I dunno.

It’s somewhere between “I don’t care if you skip” and “this will save us the human interaction.”

Ah, there we go.

 

I excuse Lorenzo Callen’s absence for today. He had a doctor’s appointment that could not be rescheduled.

—Cassi Callen

 

Sometimes the ladies at the front desk take my note without argument. Sometimes they look over it, sneer, and say, “It isn’t dated.” I know they think I forge the notes. But even though I could probably forge both my parents’ signatures if I tried—I wouldn’t do that.

Today the receptionist is giving my mom’s handwritten excuse a thorough inspection, but when she looks up, I can already see I’m in the clear. She smiles at me and says she hopes I’m feeling better. I smile back.

Math and science, then maybe the library, or the record store or home or—

Shit.

I’m not looking where I’m going and I full-on run into her, sending her stumbling back against the glass door to the admin office.

I reach out and grab her, though really? What does that do? She’s already smacked her head. Oh, Morning, I’m so, so sorry.

“Oh Jesus.” She groans, rubbing the back of her skull. She looks up at me. She has doll’s eyes. I mean, I saw them a lot during the group session because she was always turning to stare at me, but now that I’ve got an up-close view, they’re pretty unreal. “You.”

Me.

I point to myself and smile.

“Are you stalking me?”

I shake my head. No, of course not. I mean, if she wants to come live in my room or something, I’m sure we could delve into the mysteries of the universe together.

“You going to say something?” She sniffs, finally dropping her hand.

Before I can convey any of my million swirling thoughts, Mr. Little, the counselor, pokes his head out of his office.

He looks at the two of us and frowns.

“Mr. Callen, shouldn’t you be in class?”

I nod slowly, flushing. I don’t hate anyone, not with a capital H anyway. But Mr. Little? I get about as close to hating him as possible without actually tumbling into Hate.

“Miss Moreau-Maddox? Right this way.”

Oh no. Morning, no, no, no. Not Mr. Little. You don’t want to talk to that guy.

All three years of middle school flash through my mind. The guy’s always been an arrogant asshole. He ended up taking a job at my high school too.

Morning starts to walk past me, and I put a hand on her shoulder, gentle.

He won’t hurt her the way the girls in group talk about being hurt.

But people don’t always have to touch you to hurt you.

Morning looks down at my hand and then up at me. I smile at her.

Be strong.

As Mr. Little closes his office door, I hear him say, “Morning, about that Callen boy—”

I’m almost to math class when I finally get my breathing under control. Slow and steady. That’s it, Renzy. In, two-three-four. Out, two-three-four. In, two-three—

Morning? Am I hallucinating or is she standing in front of me?

No.

It’s not Morning.

People shove their way past me, two currents, pushing against my shoulders, and I am the rock in the middle of the stream.

There’s a boy, a foot out of reach, with Morning’s pale skin and white-blond hair, except when he looks at me—and he does look at me—I don’t see sad doll eyes. I see something wicked.