Chapter Two

“Hey, Pagan, Mr. Yorkley said I needed to come talk to you.” Leif’s voice seemed to snap me out of my momentary shock. If Mr. Yorkley sent him, he needed some sort of academic help. However, I wasn’t sure I wanted to help, nor did I intend on making this easy for him. I managed a “so what” expression and waited in silence. Leif cleared his throat and rubbed his hands on the knees of his jeans, as if he were actually nervous.

“Uh, um, well,” he began, “I mean, that is, I need some help in Speech. It isn’t my thing and Mr. Yorkley said you were the one to talk to about getting some assistance.” He stared straight ahead as he spoke. He hadn’t even glanced over at me. I really didn’t like this guy. He finally turned his gaze my direction. I was sure he bestowed this pitifully hopeful expression on females everywhere, in order to get what he wanted. My stomach betrayed me and quivered from the affect his pleading baby blue eyes evoked. I hated that he could make my body react to him at all, other than to hurl of course.

“This is the first day of school. How can you need help already?” I asked in a voice I hoped sounded annoyed. I wasn’t a simpering idiot who could be moved by a few bats of his long eyelashes, even if my double-crossing body didn’t seem to agree. Surely I was imagining the faint blush on his cheeks.

“Um, yeah, I know, but I, well, that is Mr. Yorkley and I know I’m going to struggle,” he said a little defensively. Leif had always been a good student. I’d been in a few classes with him.

“Why do you both think you’ll struggle? Surely, you’re not afraid to speak out loud in class.”

He shook his head and stared straight ahead again. “No, that’s not it.” I waited but he didn’t say anymore.

Interestingly enough, I became intrigued.

“I don’t really know why you need my help. It’s really simple. You write speeches about the topics assigned and then give them orally. Simple, basic, no fancy strings or hard equations.”

He turned his gaze back toward me with a sad smile. “It isn’t so easy for me.” He paused and acted like he wanted to say more, and then he shook his head and stood up, “Never mind, forget I asked.” I watched him walk past the table of his admiring fans and head outside through the double doors. I experienced a minute pang of guilt for being so hard on him. He’d come to ask for help and I’d basically just made fun of him. I reached for my tray, angry with myself for acting like a jerk. ‘Jerk’ belonged in his job description, not mine.

* * * *

My book bag landed on the kitchen counter with a heavy thump, announcing my return. I headed for the fridge. The fresh squeezed orange juice I’d worked so hard on yesterday sounded good.

“Pagan, honey, is that you?” My mom’s voice called from down the hall. She was huddled in the corner of her office with a large cup of coffee, typing away on her computer. I didn’t have to see her to know this. My mother is a writer.

She lives in stained sweats behind her computer.

“Yes,” I replied. Before I could pour myself a glass of orange juice, the sound of her slippers flopping against the hardwood floors surprised me. This was a strange occurrence. Rarely did she break away from her writing when I came home from school. It was usually closer to dinner time before she graced me with her presence.

“Good, I’m glad you came straight home. I need to talk to you and then I have to get dressed.” She motioned to her baggy sweats and large Atlanta Braves t-shirt. “I’m having dinner with Roger but don’t worry, I’m leaving you money to order a pizza.” She pulled a bar stool out and her friendly face turned serious. It wasn’t a good serious, either. This was the kind of serious I recognized but rarely experienced.

“What?” I asked as I set my glass down.

Mom’s back became more rigid as she cleared her throat.

The “I am disappointed in you” frown turned the corners of her lips down. I quickly racked my brain, trying to think of something I might have done to upset her, but nothing came to mind.

“I received a call, right in the middle of chapter fifteen, from Mr. Yorkley.”

Uh oh, she knew about Leif. “Mr. Yorkley?” I asked, pretending I didn’t know what this was about. Mom nodded and tilted her head to the side as if she were studying me to see if she believed I really had no idea why my teacher might call. The head tilt always made me nervous. I braced myself.

She was about to let me have it. I’d been a jerk, but in my defense it wasn’t like I did any damage. I’d made fun of the reigning king, not someone with low self-esteem.

“Apparently, there is a young man who has a learning disability and was told to seek you out for extra tutoring. You did sign up to tutor this year for extra credit. My question is: why, Pagan, would you not help a student at your school who struggles with something as serious as dyslexia? The boy, I’m told, has the opportunity to be given a scholarship on his athletic abilities, but his handicap requires he get extra help in certain classes. He needs someone to help him put the speeches he must write on paper. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask. You did say you wanted to tutor this year.

Explain to me why you chose to tell this boy no, and I’m telling you now it had better be good.” She leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest, in her “I’m waiting” stance.

Leif suffered from dyslexia? Was this a joke? I’d been going to school with him most of my life. Girls, Miranda included, knew everything about him. Heck, Miranda once told me exactly where his birthmark happened to be located.

Not that I cared. How could Leif Montgomery have dyslexia and no one know it?

I thought back to Leif asking me for help in the lunchroom today and the way I’d acted. The revelation that Leif dealt with something like dyslexia and still managed to make such good grades bothered me. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, but it did. I liked thinking of him as a jock. Someone who managed to get heaps of good fortune dumped on his head. Now all I could think about was the way he looked today when he’d come to ask me for help. A sick knot settled in the pit of my stomach.

I glanced up at my mom and shook my head slowly, “I had no idea he had a learning disability. He’s always so cocky and sure of himself. I was surprised he came to me for help and I immediately questioned why he, of all people, would need help.”

Mom leaned forward on the bar and her frown eased some. “Well, you can make it right. I’ve raised a more compassionate child than that.”

I nodded and reached for my book bag, “I know and I’m sorry. I’ll fix it.”

She seemed appeased. “I don’t like getting calls from school about you. Especially not when I’m writing an intense murder scene.”

I smiled and put my glass into the dishwasher before turning back to her. “Sorry, I’ll try to remember that. Um, so, second date then with this Roger guy?” She blushed. “Yes, he and I seem to be able to talk for hours. I love his mind and he has traveled all over the world.

My mind is always turning when he talks of places and things I’ve never seen.”

She shrugged, “You know me, I’m always thinking of a story behind everything.”

I raised my eyebrows and leaned close to her. “And he’s a hottie.”

She giggled, which was not a normal sound for my mom to make. “Oh, now that’s not why I like him. It’s his mind and the conversation.”

I laughed out loud. “Sure it is, Mom, you just keep telling yourself that lie.”

“Okay fine, he’s rather attractive.”

“Mom, he’s a hottie and you know it. Granted, he’s an old hottie, but still.”

“He’s not old. He’s my age.”

“Exactly.”

I watched her attempt to appear hurt before she gave in and laughed. “Fine, I’m old. Your money will be on the counter when you’re ready to order some pizza.” Staying home by myself wasn’t something I enjoyed.

When I’m alone the souls I see wandering aimlessly bother me. Especially since I’d actually chatted with one today. It was easier to remind myself they were harmless when they were mute. Now, I was a little freaked out. Once I closed my bedroom door, I grabbed the cell out of my pocket and called Miranda.

* * * *

“Let me see if I’ve got this straight.” Miranda sat on the couch with a piece of pizza in her hand and a soda between her legs, staring at me. “Leif ‘rocking-hot-make-you-melt’

Montgomery asked you to help him in Speech and you turned him down? Are you as insane as I think you are? I mean really, Pagan, I thought the insaneness you so often flash about was just for show and deep down you did have some common sense.”

I slapped a piece of pizza down on the plate in front of me in frustration. “I’m going to fix it in the morning. It isn’t like I robbed a bank. Stop making a big deal out of it. I know I screwed up. He really needed help and I did sign up to tutor.

If I want the extra credit, I have to help those Mr. Yorkley sends my way.”

Miranda rolled her eyes, “Oh, and heaven forbid he send the hottest male in the county your way! I mean, for crying out loud, what is wrong with you?”

It was impossible not to find amusement in her drama.

Miranda never failed to make you smile at the little things, by making it all a big dramatic scene.

“I was wrong for not offering to help. I guess my prejudice toward jocks got in the way. But, I’m not helping him because you think he is hot. I’m only helping because he actually needs help and I signed up to help those who need it.”

Miranda rolled her eyes and froze, holding her pizza in mid-air between the plate and her mouth. “Wait....is he like going to come to your house and stuff? Because, if he is, I want to be here too. He can notice me and realize he’s hopelessly in love with me and then we can date through high school and then after graduation, we can get married and I can have his babies.”

Soda spewed from my mouth and coated my plate of pizza. “What?” She smiled and shrugged before taking a bite of her soda-free pizza.

“For starters, you need to finish college before you can even think of getting married and having kids. And NO he won’t be coming over here. Even if he was, I wouldn’t let you come over after such an insane comment. The last thing I want to do is fix my friend up with a guy she’s fantasizing about marrying and having babies with straight out of high school.”

Miranda sighed in defeat and gave me the pouty frown she was so good at. “You’re no fun, Pagan, no fun at all.” I took another piece of pizza from the cardboard box I’d placed on the coffee table. “Really? So, why do you keep me around?” I asked.

“Because I love you!”

“Love you too.”

Miranda stood up. “I hate to leave all the warm coziness of this conversation but I need to go pee.” She jumped up off the couch and headed down the hall toward the bathroom.

She always held it to the last minute. I kept thinking she would grow out of it as we got older but she hadn’t. When she decided she needed to go to the restroom it was always a mad rush.

“Interesting friend you have there. She’s really quite entertaining.” The pizza I’d been lifting toward my mouth fell out of my hands and into my lap. I bit back the scream in my throat. He’d startled me but I recognized the deep drawl.

The talking soul sat on one of my bar stools. Just great.

The really sexy, yet creepy-because–he-can-talk dead guy must have followed me home. “Why’re you here?” I demanded quietly, wanting him to just leave me alone and go wander the Earth somewhere else. The intensity of his steady gaze made my pulse jump from nerves, or maybe a better description would be fear.

“I can’t tell you that. Now isn’t the time. But, I can tell you I’m not going away anytime soon.” After a quick peek to see if Miranda was returning, I glanced back at him. “Why? If I ignore you—you soul things—you always go away.”

He frowned, leaned forward and studied me closely.

“What do you mean by ignore you ‘soul things’?” Not feeling very safe on the floor looking up at him, I shoved the pizza out of my lap and stood up so I could be eye level with the soul. “You aren’t special. I’ve been seeing ghosts or souls or spirits or whatever you are, all my life.

Souls are everywhere. In my house, on the street, in the stores, at others’ houses, I can see them. I just ignore them and they go away.”

He slowly stood up and took a step toward me. His height was intimidating but his nearness would have had me backing up even if he’d been short. “You can see souls?”

“I can see you, can’t I?”

He nodded slowly. “Yes, but I’m different. You’re supposed to see me. It’s easier that way. But the others....you aren’t supposed to see them.”

The bathroom door opened with a click. I jerked my head around to see Miranda returning with a smile on her face.

“Were you talking to yourself just now?” I shrugged and forced a smile. “Um, yes.” She laughed and sat back down on the couch. I took a steadying breath and then glanced back at the soul who had returned to the same white wicker kitchen stool, watching me. The only way I could finish this conversation and get him to leave would be to send Miranda home. Talking to a soul she couldn’t see wouldn’t go over very well. My ability to see souls wasn’t something I’d shared with her and I didn’t intend to start.

The soul seemed to be waiting for me to make a decision.

The thought of being alone with him frightened me. He might be sexy, but he was dead and he had followed me home. Creepy didn’t begin to describe it. Letting Miranda leave me here wouldn’t be in the plans tonight. I put some distance between the soul and myself by walking over to the couch to sit next to Miranda. “Want to watch Vampire Diaries? I have the last two episodes recorded,” I asked her, hoping the soul got the hint and vanished.

“OH! Yes, I missed last week.”

I grabbed the remote, scanned down the recorded shows on my DVR list and clicked play. I needed to get my mind off the dead guy in the room. After at least ten minutes of listening to Miranda swoon over Damon and fuss at Elena, I held my breath and chanced a peek in his direction. The stool where he’d been sitting now sat empty. I let out a sigh of relief.

* * * *

All morning, I’d been replaying exactly what I would to say to Leif. I wasn’t sure if I should let him know that I knew about his dyslexia, or if I should just tell him we could start as soon as he was ready and skip the explanation. I also prepared myself for him to tell me he no longer needed my help. If he’d already managed to find another tutor then this whole mess would be over. I wouldn’t be forced to help someone I didn’t really like, but it would be a negative strike against my extra credit. Either way, I lost in this situation.

This also wasn’t something I wanted to do with Miranda beside me, batting her eyelashes at him and giggling when he spoke. Timing would be of utmost importance. After Chemistry, I waited in the hallway for him to come out of the only class we shared this semester. Luckily, he walked out alone.

“Um, Leif, could I talk to you a minute?” I asked as soon as he stepped out of the door. He glanced over at me and an immediate frown creased his forehead. He appeared to be seriously considering walking away and ignoring me when he turned and made his way over to stand in front of me instead. Leaning against the wall, he crossed his arms in front of his chest and waited. I had a feeling he wasn’t going to make this easy for me.

“About yesterday, I’m sorry I was so rude about helping you. I did sign up to tutor for extra credit and I shouldn’t have treated you the way I did.” I stopped and hesitated, hoping he would say something. He didn’t move or even act as if he was going to respond. I took a deep breath and reminded myself this was my fault. “If you still want me to tutor you, I’d be happy to,” I finished, not really happy, but it sounded like the polite thing to say and his silent stare happened to be making me nervous. He appeared bored and it took extreme self-control not to get mad at him and walk off. Remembering exactly how rude I’d been yesterday helped keep me waiting patiently for his reply. He straightened and stared down the hall over my shoulder as if he wasn’t really considering what I’d said.

Right when I felt positive he no longer wanted my help, he focused his bored expression on me and asked, “Are you offering because of Mr. Yorkley? Did he make you do this?” I thought of my Mom’s words yesterday and wondered. If she hadn’t insisted I ‘make it right’, would I be offering my help now? This popular, talented, worshipped guy trusted me with his secret. I didn’t like him. Heck, I didn’t know him, but for some reason I wanted to help him.

“I acted the way I did because I just don’t like you very much. I was wrong and, honestly, I don’t even know you well enough to form an opinion of you. I’m offering to help because you need it. That’s what I signed up for and that’s why I’m here now.”

He seemed to think about what I said for a moment, and then a small smile appeared on his face. “You don’t like me, huh?”

I stood a little straighter and pulled my books closer to my chest feeling defensive. Surprisingly, it was rather difficult to be the recipient of one of his charming smiles.

Especially after I’d just admitted I didn’t like him. Why did he have to be so frustratingly cute? I gave a small shake of my head and he chuckled. “Well, we might have to work on changing your mind.” He slipped his book bag up higher on his shoulder and flashed me one more grin. “I’ll see you later.”

He walked away, leaving me slightly flustered. I fought the urge to turn around and watch him saunter off. A slow, clapping noise startled me and I spun around to see the talking soul leaning against the lockers with that blasted, crooked grin.

“Impressive. A female with enough nerve to admit she can be wrong, apologize, and offer to rectify the situation.” I rolled my eyes and sighed, knowing the hallway wasn’t completely empty so responding wouldn’t be possible. “Go away,” I hissed anyway, before turning to head for the cafeteria.

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