I was supposed to die the moment I was born.
Yeah. Learning that kind of changes a person. Makes it a little difficult to trust, you know? In fact, a lot this summer has affected my ability to trust.
And my friendships.
And my life goals.
And my understanding of the world and how it works. You know the phrase “Mind. Blown.”? Around here, that’s a daily occurrence.
“Any reaction yet?” Jordan glanced at me from the driver’s seat as she steered onto the highway.
“No. Watch traffic,” I ground through my teeth. She’d gotten her license late because she didn’t like to drive and her parents were sticklers about her reaching the minimum number of hours. She even said once that she couldn’t wait to get her license so she could stop driving. Of course, now that she had it, she insisted on taking the wheel. Jordan topped the handful of people I did trust—unless we were on the road.
“I am.” She flicked on the signal about half a second before surging into the travel lane. I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer. The traffic settled around us, and I relaxed a little.
“What are they doing?” She tried to look again, and I shoved my palm against the side of her head.
“Hovering. Watch the road.”
“That’s it? Not pointing or shuddering or freaking out?”
“How would a tendril freak out? They don’t have emotion.” That we knew of. I held up the two little glass vials. Each held what we called a tendril, one light, one shadow. They were about three inches long and slender, almost worm-like but not so squiggly. The one that came from the angels was a pure white light but edged in yellow. The shadow tendril was smoky, but solid. Both were kind of beautiful, as scary things often are.
These, and who knew how many like them, had come through a couple of rifts between worlds a few weeks ago. The light tendrils had come from the world of angels. My world, as I had a human body and an angel soul. The shadow tendrils had come from the shadow world. I’d been told they were like scouts, but nothing like them had been used in a really long time—centuries, maybe?—so no one was really sure what they could do. They swam or wriggled through the air like baby snakes, and had gotten away from us before we could capture any. Well, there was a whole thing with winding up in the hospital. That interfered for a while.
We’d each caught one the other day, being careful not to touch them with our bare skin, and secured them in little glass vials. And now Jordan and I were testing them. The rift they came through was in a clearing in the woods of a state park to the east of us. So we were heading west, planning to drive as far as we could to see if there was a range on these puppies.
We drove in silence for a few minutes, Jordan actually watching the road, me watching the tendrils in the jars. Watching them do nothing. It was boring. But I couldn’t say so, because this had been my idea.
Jordan tapped her thumbs on the wheel. “You call Amherst yet?”
I sighed. “Yeah.”
“Really?” She straightened and glanced at me, then held her hand up to stop me from shoving at her again and faced forward. “I was starting to think you were never going to do it.”
“We had a lot going on,” I reminded her. My arms were getting tired. I balanced the vials on my thighs and pinned each one with a finger on top. “You know, these have been closed for hours now. No oxygen. Looks like they don’t need it.”
She shrugged. “Not a surprise. No one really thought they were alive.”
“Yeah.” I waited, because if she was tenacious about anything—and really, she was tenacious about everything—it was Amherst College. We’d both applied, but only I had been accepted. She was ashamed to tell me, so it didn’t come out until the end of May, right before graduation, when I found out I was half angel and my original mission was to protect Jordan. Well, how was I supposed to do that from college when she wasn’t there? So I disenrolled about a month after accepting.
That had pissed her off. She pointed out that she didn’t have to go to Amherst College to live in Amherst. Made me feel kind of dumb, actually, like sacrificing my planned future for her was completely unnecessary. So then she told me a few weeks ago, back in July, to contact the school and see if I could still go. That was right before we had to save the world again, so I put it off. But like I said, she’s tenacious.
“So what did they say?” she finally demanded. “Can you go?”
“I can defer. Take a gap year. Then I can enroll next fall.”
She scowled and thumped the wheel with her fist. “That’s not right. You should be able to go this year.”
“Yeah, well, once I told them I wasn’t coming, that kind of locked up my options. They were really nice about it, but it’s too late to give me a spot. It’s not like I can give them a good reason to make an exception.” I raised the vials and peered at the tendrils again. They still floated inside the glass, balanced, as if able to keep themselves equidistant from all sides. I spun them, and the tendrils didn’t change position.
“Shake ’em up.” Jordan glanced over again. “Will they splat if you shake them?”
“I tried that before. They just stay put.” But I did it again for her approval. Nothing happened. It was like they were suspended in a clear gel or something, unaffected by the laws of motion. But only air surrounded them.
“Okay. Then if you’re not going to school this year, we have some planning to do.” She checked her mirrors and blind spot and then zoomed into the left lane to pass an eighteen-wheeler.
“Blinker!” I yelled at her, wiggling in my seat to compensate for the sudden momentum shift.
“Oh, right. I always forget.” She used it this time to get back into the right lane.
I slumped and closed my eyes. Maybe keeping them closed would make this whole trip easier. My heart ran at rabbit speed every time she did something like that. Even these small jolts of fear were a lot stronger than what I had been used to my whole life. When you normally experience about ten percent of an emotion, and then suddenly everything is one hundred percent, it can be tough to deal with.
“What kind of planning?” I asked. “We can just keep working at the Pickle. Save money so we can get an apartment or something next fall.” Not that Amherst allowed freshmen to live off campus. Maybe they’d make an exception for that if we got a medical power of attorney or something that said I had to take care of Jordan.
If I still had to protect her. When I was born, an electric shock separated my angel soul from my human body. A team of angel agents used the power that generated to close the channels that allowed angels to come to our world. But I was expected to die, so why had I been given a mission at all? I was told that Jordan was descended from both angels and shadows and therefore prime for possession by either. I was supposed to make sure that didn’t happen. Except no full angels or full shadows could come through—at least for now—so I had no mission. I suspected it was all made up in the first place, to keep me from knowing the truth.
“No,” Jordan declared, “that’s boring. Even if that’s what we do, it still requires planning. You have to tell your parents you’re not going.”
I groaned. “Don’t remind me.” I’d put that off about as long as I could. I’d been pretending to read The Orestaia all summer in preparation for a required class. I just couldn’t bring myself to admit to my parents that I wasn’t going to college. They’d never understand, even if I could tell them the truth.
“Are you going to tell them why?” Jordan’s voice went soft. She acted like she didn’t care about much, but when she did, it went deep.
“I don’t know what I’m going to tell them.” I stared out the side window—keeping my eyes closed had been worse than watching her drive—and wondered how the hell I’d avoid the biggest fight my house had ever seen. I couldn’t say I wasn’t going to Amherst because Jordan hadn’t gotten in. That wasn’t fair to my best friend. I’d made the decision, and it wasn’t because I was scared to be there alone. That’s what my parents would think, though.
I could blame my mental condition. They’d worried about that for most of the summer, because I was so stressed. Working and fake-studying and dealing with Lincoln and Tucker’s rivalry over me, plus training with Bing and dealing with how weak my powers were and the strength of my emotions. My mother thought I needed mental health care. Then I wound up in the hospital after we stopped Andromeda from shutting down the channels. Nothing was wrong with me, and they were finally starting to believe that, so I didn’t want to start it all over again. But it was a plausible excuse to give for disenrolling. I could claim it was a knee-jerk reaction to being so overwhelmed. My mom would probably buy that, but then she wouldn’t buy that her previously level-headed, even-keeled daughter would go to such an extreme measure. Being rational was my superpower, after all. So she’d probably insist on major medical treatment, and I just didn’t have time for that.
Jordan screamed and hit the brakes. I yelled with no idea what was going on, reaching for both the dash and the handle over the passenger door. I stared around wildly, expecting to see swerving cars or a coming collision.
But almost immediately Jordan was back up to speed, breathing hard and hands white on the wheel. The traffic around us seemed normal.
“What the eff, Jor?”
“Sorry. Sorry. That truck cut over without signaling and it seemed so close, and I had to slam on the brakes, and I thought that deer was going to run out and make it all worse.”
“What deer?” I spun to look, but of course we were too far past whatever it was. Deer, fallen tree, figment of her imagination.
“There was a deer in the ravine. It’s okay. It doesn’t matter.” Her voice cracked, though.
“Take the next exit,” I told her. “I can take over driving.”
She didn’t argue, so I knew the whole thing had really scared her. As my adrenaline ebbed, I realized my hands were empty. Carefully raising my feet, I peered around on the floor, looking for the vials. Crap. They better not be broken. Unintentionally, I spread my right hand and checked the faint, two-inch mark across my palm. Like, if the shadow tendril had gotten free of its container, it would zoom in on the mark. Dumb.
I couldn’t see the vials in the foot well in front of my seat. They must have rolled under it. But even though I contorted and reached under as far as I could, I felt nothing. I’d have to get out and move the seat to find them.
Jordan carefully exited the highway and pulled into a service station across the street from the off ramp. Then she threw herself out of the car and hurried away, hands on her hips, flip-flops slapping her heels in rapid rhythm. I kept my focus on her as I got out and slid my seat forward, digging through papers and past half-empty water bottles until my hands closed on smooth glass. Smooth, intact glass. I blew out and rested my forehead against the seat for a second. Then I pulled them out and stood, barely casting them a glance at first. Then I held them out on my flat palms and stared.
She circled the car, muttering, but spun and marched past it again.
“Jor! Look at this!”
I held out the vials when she reached my side, her forehead tightly wrinkled and her eyes half squints because she’d shoved her sunglasses on top her head.
“What? I’m not freaking out. I’m just—” Her jaw dropped. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we reached their limit, or maybe something happened when I dropped them.” The vials rested on their sides in the curves of my palms, and the tendrils were now limp against the glass walls. The light tendril had lost its glow and was hard to see, while the shadow tendril was just as dark and smoky-looking, but lifeless.
Jordan picked up the shadow vial and shook it. The tendril flopped around like wet yarn. I did the same with the angel vial, but I couldn’t tell if it had similar movement because we were in bright sun. It was definitely lifeless, though.
A crawly sensation traveled across my shoulders and inched down my spine, then intensified. I wrapped my hand around the vial and tucked it against my leg, angling myself so whoever was watching us from inside the service station office couldn’t see it. It was extremely unlikely that they’d know what I was holding, but instinct told me to protect it anyway. Pressure built against the base of my spine. Another person had joined the first in watching us. They were the only ones around, and now I was more than uncomfortable. No cars had even passed while we were standing here.
“Where are we?” Jordan looked around, spinning to find road signs, but stopped and whipped out her phone instead. “We’ve got to mark the coordinates. Then we can find some more and come out here again to see what happens.”
“We’ve got to go,” I tried to say, but my voice stuck in my throat.
She tapped a few times and grunted in satisfaction. “Okay, let’s drive home. We’ll see if they come back to life.” She marched back toward the car—the driver’s side of the car.
“Hey, Mario Andretti! Forget something?” I strode after her, shoving my vial into her hand and reaching for the keys.
“Oh. Right.” She stuck them on my palm, frowning. “What did you call me?”
“Mario Andretti.” I got in the car and pulled on my seatbelt. The crawling eased. They’d moved away from the window and weren’t watching us anymore. Probably just standard pervs. Definitely human. Nothing to worry about.
“Who’s that?” Jordan placed the vials in one of the cupholders so she could adjust the seat and buckle in.
“Some old race car driver or something. My mom always says it. I think it was one of my grandmother’s favorite lines.”
I carefully got us back on the highway, heading back toward Appleton. Jordan watched the tendrils, holding the vials inches from her face. When we approached our exit, she hummed.
“That confirms it, then. They’re dead.”
“If they could be considered alive in the first place.”
She put them back in the cupholder, then yawned and stretched. “Well, they do have— Hey! That’s our exit!”
“I’m driving to Palmer.” That was close to the forest where the tendrils had appeared, zipping out of open channels between worlds. We’d closed those rifts but not before who-knew-how-many tendrils came through. I wanted to make sure they didn’t revive when they got close to the entry point itself.
“But I’m hungry. I thought we were meeting Lincoln and Alec for lunch.”
A pang struck beneath my breast bone. It still sounded wrong for her to say “Lincoln and Alec” instead of “Lincoln and Tucker.” The four of us had been friends since the beginning of junior year, when Lincoln first moved to town, but Tucker and I broke up last month, and Jordan was kinda-sorta dating Alec, a shadow hybrid we’d met around the same time. We were still friends with Tucker, but the group dynamic was weird.
“We have time. It’s early.”
She grumbled about her growling stomach but sat back, fiddling with the music selection. We drove for a while with Jordan singing along to whatever happened to come up on shuffle, going from Walk Off the Earth and twenty one pilots to Bombay Bicycle Club and songs from Hamilton and Something Rotten. By the time my phone rang, one of the songs from Straight No Chaser’s latest Christmas album had come up, and my head had begun to throb.
Linc flashed on the console screen. I hit the button on the steering wheel to answer it. “Hey.”
His “hey” had a lot more drawl than mine, a lot more intent behind it. My face heated, and Jordan snickered.
Lincoln didn’t seem to care, but at least he didn’t continue the vocal seduction. “Where are you guys? Any luck?”
“Yeah, we killed ’em!” Jordan gleefully told him.
“Really?” He sounded surprised.
“They certainly look lifeless,” I confirmed. “We’re heading toward the clearing to see if they revive, but we’re way past Appleton now, and they haven’t moved.”
Jordan shook the shadow vial, and the thing flopped just as limply as it had before. “Yeah, I think we got some good data.”
“Great. Now what?”
“Lunch!” called Jordan at the same time I said “Dissection.”