Weird. Why would that be there?

As I straightened and started to turn around, something moved out of the corner of my eye. I caught a glimpse of a figure hiding behind Ethan’s bedroom door, its pale eyes watching me through the crack. I jerked my head around, but of course there was nothing there.

Jeez, now Ethan’s got me seeing imaginary monsters. I need to stop watching those late-night horror flicks.

A thunderous boom directly overhead made me jump, and fat drops plinked against the windowpanes. Rushing past Ethan, I burst out of the house and sprinted down the driveway.

I WAS SOAKED WHEN I REACHED the bus stop. The late spring rain wasn’t frigid, but it was cold enough to be uncomfortable. I crossed my arms and huddled under a mossy cypress, waiting for the bus to arrive.

Wonder where Robbie is? I mused, gazing down the road. He’s usually here by now. Maybe he didn’t feel like getting drenched and stayed home. I snorted and rolled my eyes. Skipping class again, huh? Slacker. Wish I could do that.

If only I had a car. I knew kids whose parents gave them cars for their sixteenth birthday. Me, I’d be lucky if I got a cake. Most of my classmates already had licenses and could drive themselves to clubs and parties and anywhere they wanted. I was always left behind, the backward hick girl nobody wanted to invite.

Except Robbie, I amended with a small mental shrug. At least Robbie will remember. Wonder what kooky thing he has planned for my birthday tomorrow? I could almost guarantee it would be something strange or crazy. Last year, he snuck me out of the house for a midnight picnic in the woods. It was weird; I remembered the glen and the little pond with the fireflies drifting over it, but though I explored the woods behind my house countless times since then, I never found it again.

Something rustled in the bushes behind me. A possum or a deer, or even a fox, seeking shelter from the rain. The wildlife out here was stupidly bold and had little fear of humans. If it wasn’t for Beau, Mom’s vegetable garden would be a buffet for rabbits and deer, and the local raccoon family would help themselves to everything in our cupboards.

A branch snapped in the trees, closer this time. I shifted uncomfortably, determined not to turn around for some stupid squirrel or raccoon. I’m not like “inflate-a-boob” Angie, Ms. Perfect Cheerleader, who’d flip out if she saw a caged gerbil or a speck of dirt on her Hollister jeans. I’ve pitched hay and killed rats and driven pigs through knee-deep mud. Wild animals don’t scare me.

Still, I stared down the road, hoping to see the bus turn the corner. Maybe it was the rain and my own sick imagination, but the woods felt like the set for The Blair Witch Project.

There are no wolves or serial killers out here, I told myself. Stop being paranoid.

The forest was suddenly very quiet. I leaned against the tree and shivered, trying to will the bus into appearing. A chill crawled up my back. I wasn’t alone. Cautiously, I craned my neck up, peering through the leaves. An enormous black bird perched on a branch, feathers spiked out against the rain, sitting as motionless as a statue. As I watched, it turned its head and met my gaze, with eyes as green as colored glass.

And then, something reached around the tree and grabbed me.

I screamed and leaped away, my heart hammering in my ears. Whirling around, I tensed to run, my mind filled with rapists and murderers and Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Laughter exploded behind me.

Robbie Goodfell, my closest neighbor—meaning he lived nearly two miles away—slouched against the tree trunk, gasping with mirth. Lanky and tall, in tattered jeans and an old T-shirt, he paused to look at my pale face, before cracking up again. His spiky red hair lay plastered to his forehead and his clothes clung to his skin, emphasizing his lean, bony frame, as though his limbs didn’t fit quite right. Being drenched and covered in twigs, leaves, and mud didn’t seem to bother him. Few things did.

“Dammit, Robbie!” I raged, stomping up and aiming a kick at him. He dodged and staggered into the road, his face red from laughter. “That wasn’t funny, you idiot. You nearly gave me a heart attack.”

“S-sorry, princess,” Robbie gasped, clutching his heart as he sucked in air. “It was just too perfect.” He gave a final chortle and straightened, holding his ribs. “Man, that was impressive. You must’ve jumped three feet in the air. What, did you think I was, Leatherface or something?”

“Of course not, stupid.” I turned away with a huff to hide my burning face. “And I told you to stop calling me that! I’m not ten anymore.”

“Sure thing, princess.”

I rolled my eyes. “Has anyone told you you have the maturity level of a four-year-old?”

He laughed cheerfully. “Look who’s talking. I’m not the one who stayed up all night with the lights on after watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I tried to warn you.” He made a grotesque face and staggered toward me, arms outstretched. “Ooooh, look out, it’s Leatherface.”

I scowled and kicked water at him. He kicked some back, laughing. By the time the bus showed up a few minutes later, we were both covered in mud, dripping wet, and the bus driver told us to sit in the back.

“What are you doing after school?” Robbie asked as we huddled in the far backseat. Around us, students talked, joked, laughed, and generally paid us no attention. “Wanna grab a coffee later? Or we could sneak into the theater and see a movie.”

“Not today, Rob,” I replied, trying to wring water from my shirt. Now that it was over, I dearly regretted our little mud battle. I was going to look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon in front of Scott. “You’ll have to do your sneaking without me this time. I’m tutoring someone after class.”

Robbie’s green eyes narrowed. “Tutoring someone? Who?”

My stomach fluttered, and I tried not to grin. “Scott Waldron.”

“What?” Robbie’s lip curled in a grimace of disgust. “The jockstrap? Why, does he need you to teach him how to read?”

I scowled at him. “Just because he’s captain of the football team doesn’t mean you can be a jerk. Or are you jealous?”

“Oh, of course, that’s it,” Robbie said with a sneer. “I’ve always wanted the IQ of a rock. No, wait. That would be an insult to the rock.” He snorted. “I can’t believe you’re going for the jockstrap. You can do so much better, princess.”

“Don’t call me that.” I turned away to hide my burning face. “And it’s just a tutoring session. He’s not going to ask me to the prom. Jeez.”

“Right.” Robbie sounded unconvinced. “He’s not, but you’re hoping he will. Admit it. You’re drooling over him just like every empty-headed cheerleader on campus.”

“So what if I am?” I snapped, spinning around. “It’s none of your business, Rob. What do you care, anyway?”

He got very quiet, muttering something unintelligible under his breath. I turned my back on him and stared out the window. I didn’t care what Robbie said. This afternoon, for one glorious hour, Scott Waldron would be mine alone, and no one would distract me from that.

SCHOOL DRAGGED. THE TEACHERS all spoke gibberish, and the clocks seemed to be moving backward. The afternoon crept by in a daze. Finally, finally, the last bell rang, freeing me from the endless torture of X equals Y problems.

Today is the day, I told myself as I maneuvered the crowded hallways, keeping to the edge of the teeming mass. Wet sneakers squeaked over tile, and a miasma of sweat, smoke, and body odor hung thick in the air. Nervousness fluttered inside me. You can do this. Don’t think about it. Just go in and get it over with.

Dodging students, I wove my way down the hall and peeked into the computer room.

There he was, sitting at one of the desks with both feet up on another chair. Scott Waldron, captain of the football team. Gorgeous Scott. King-of-the-school Scott. He wore a red-and-white letterman jacket that showed off his broad chest, and his thick dark blond hair brushed the top of his collar.

My heart pounded. A whole hour in the same room with Scott Waldron, with no one to get in the way. Normally, I couldn’t even get close to Scott; he was either surrounded by Angie and her cheerleader groupies, or his football buddies. There were other students in the computer lab with us, but they were nerds and academic types, beneath Scott Waldron’s notice. The jocks and cheerleaders wouldn’t be caught dead in here if they could help it. I took a deep breath and stepped into the room.

He didn’t glance at me when I walked up beside him. He lounged in the chair with his feet up and his head back, tossing an invisible ball across the room. I cleared my throat. Nothing. I cleared it a little louder. Still nothing.

Gathering my courage, I stepped in front of him and waved. His coffee-brown eyes finally jerked up to mine. For a moment, he looked startled. Then an eyebrow rose in a lazy arc, as if he couldn’t figure out why I wanted to talk to him.

Uh-oh. Say something, Meg. Something intelligent.

“Um…” I stammered. “Hi. I’m Meghan. I sit behind you. In computer class.” He was still giving me that blank stare, and I felt my cheeks getting hot. “Uh…I really don’t watch a lot of sports, but I think you’re an awesome quarterback, not that I’ve seen many—well, just you, actually. But you really seem to know what you’re doing. I go to all your games, you know. I’m usually in the very back, so you probably don’t see me.” Oh, God. Shut up, Meg. Shut up now. I clamped my mouth closed to stop the incessant babbling, wanting to crawl into a hole and die. What was I thinking, agreeing to this? Better to be invisible than to look like a complete and total moron, especially in front of Scott.

He blinked lazily, reached up, and pulled the earphones from his ears. “Sorry, babe,” he drawled in that wonderful, deep voice of his. “I couldn’t hear you.” He gave me a once-over and smirked. “Are you supposed to be the tutor?”

“Um, yes.” I straightened and smoothed out my remaining shreds of dignity. “I’m Meghan. Mr. Sanders asked me to help you out with your programming project.”

He continued to smirk at me. “Aren’t you that hick girl who lives out in the swamp? Do you even know what a computer is?”

My face flamed, and my stomach contracted into a tight little ball. Okay, so I didn’t have a great computer at home. That was why I spent most of my after-school time here, in the lab, doing homework or just surfing online. In fact, I was hoping to make it into ITT Tech in a couple of years. Programming and Web design came easily to me. I knew how to work a computer, dammit.

But, in the face of Scott’s criticism, I could only stammer: “Y-yes, I do. I mean, I know a lot.” He gave me a dubious look, and I felt the sting of wounded pride. I had to prove to him that I wasn’t the backward hillbilly he thought I was. “Here, I’ll show you,” I offered, and reached toward the keyboard on the table.

Then something weird happened.

I hadn’t even touched the keys when the computer screen blipped on. When I paused, my fingers hovering over the board, words began to scroll across the blue screen.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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