Authors: Beth Fantaskey
Tags: #Speculative Fiction
For my husband, David,
and Paige and Julia
"I had long since prepared my tincture... and, late one accursed night, I compounded the elements, watched them boil and smoke together in the glass, and when the ebullition had subsided, with a strong glow of courage, drank off the potion.
The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit... I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked ... and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine."
--Robert Louis Stevenson,
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
I BURIED MY FATHER
the day after my seventeenth birthday. Even the sun was cruel that morning, an obscenely bright but cold January day. The snow that smothered the cemetery glared harshly white, blinding those mourners who couldn't squeeze under the tent that covered Dad's open grave. And the tent itself gleamed crisply, relentlessly white, so it hurt a little to look at that, too.
Hurt a lot, actually.
Against this inappropriately immaculate backdrop, splashes of black stood in stark relief, like spatters of ink on fresh paper: the polished hearse that glittered at the head of the procession, the minister's perfectly ironed shirt, and the sober coats worn by my father's many friends and colleagues, who came up one by one after the service to offer Mom and me their condolences. Maybe I saw it all in terms of color because I'm an artist. Or maybe I was just too overwhelmed to deal with anything but extremes. Maybe my grief was so raw that the whole world seemed severe and discordant and clashing.
I don't remember a word the minister said, but he seemed to talk forever. And as the gathering began to break up, I, yesterday's birthday girl, stood there under that tent fidgeting in my own uncomfortable, new black dress and heavy wool coat, on stage like some perverse debutante at the world's worst coming-out party.
I looked to my mother for support, for help, but her eyes seemed to yawn as vacant as Dad's waiting grave. I swear, meeting Mom's gaze was almost as painful as looking at the snow, or the casket, or watching the endless news reports about my father's murder. Mom was disappearing, too ...
Feeling something close to panic, I searched the crowd.
Who would help me now?
I wasn't ready to be an adult...
Was I really ... alone?
Even my only friend, Becca Wright, had begged off from the funeral, protesting that she had a big civics test, which she'd already rescheduled twice because of travel for cheerleading. And, more to the point, she just "couldn't handle" seeing my poor, murdered father actually shoved in the ground.
I looked around for my chemistry teacher, Mr. Messerschmidt, whom I'd seen earlier lingering on the fringes of the mourners, looking nervous and out of place, but I couldn't find him, and I assumed that he'd returned to school, without a word to me. Alone.
I was alone.
Or maybe I was worse than alone, because just when I thought things couldn't get more awful, my classmate Darcy Gray
emerged from the crowd, strode up, and thrust her chilly hand into mine, air-kissing my cheek. And even this gesture, which I knew Darcy
offered more out of obligation than compassion, came across like the victor's condescending acknowledgment of the vanquished. When Darcy said, "So sorry for your loss, Jill," I swore it was almost like she was congratulating herself for
parents. Like she'd bested me once more, as she had time and again since kindergarten.
"Thanks," I said stupidly, like I genuinely appreciated being worthy of pity.
"Call me if you need anything," Darcy offered. Yet I noticed that she didn't jot down her cell number. Didn't even reach into her purse and feign looking for a pen.
"Thanks," I said again.
Why was I always acting grateful for nothing?
"Sure," Darcy said, already looking around for an escape route. As she walked away, I watched her blond hair gleaming like a golden trophy in that too-brilliant sun, and the loneliness and despair that had been building in me rose to a crescendo that was so powerful I wasn't quite sure how I managed to keep my knees from buckling. Not one real friend there for me ...
That's when I noticed Tristen Hyde standing at the edge of the tent. He wore a very adult, tailored overcoat, unbuttoned, and I could see that he had donned a tie, too, for this occasion. He had his hands buried in his pockets, a gesture that I first took as signaling discomfort, unease. I mean, what teenage guy wouldn't be uncomfortable at a funeral? And I hardly knew Tristen. It wasn't like we were friends. He'd certainly never met my father. Yet there he was, when almost nobody else had shown up for me. Why? Why had he come?
When Tristen saw that I'd noticed him, he pulled his hands from his pockets, and I realized that he wasn't uneasy at all. In fact, 4
as he walked toward me, I got the impression that he'd just been waiting, patiently, for his turn. For the right time to approach me. And what a time he picked. It couldn't have been more dead on.
"It's going to be okay," he promised as he came up to me, reaching out to take my arm, like he realized that I was folding up inside, on the verge of breaking down.
I looked up at him, mutely shaking my head in the negative. No, it was not going to be okay.
He could not promise that.
Nobody could. Certainly not some kid from my high school, even a tall one dressed convincingly like a full-fledged man. I shook my head more vehemently, tears welling in my eyes.
"Trust me," he said softly, his British accent soothing. He squeezed my arm harder. "I know what I'm talking about." I didn't know at the time that Tristen had vast experience with this
"grief" thing. All I knew was that I let him, a boy I barely knew, wrap his arms around me and pull me to his chest. And suddenly, as he smoothed my hair, I really started weeping. Letting out all the tears that I'd bottled up, from the moment that the police officer had knocked on the door of our house to say that my father had been found butchered in a parking lot outside the lab where he worked, and all through planning the funeral, as my mother fell to pieces, forcing me to do absurd, impossible things like select a coffin and write insanely large checks to the undertaker. Suddenly I was burying myself under Tristen's overcoat, nearly knocking off my eyeglasses as I pressed against him, and sobbing so hard that I must have soaked his shirt and tie.
When I was done, drained of tears, I pulled away from him, adjusting my glasses and wiping my eyes, sort of embarrassed. But Tristen didn't seem bothered by my show of emotion.
"It does get better, hurt less," he assured me, repeating, "Trust me, Jill."
Such an innocuous little comment at the time, but one that would become central to my very existence in the months to come.
Trust me, Jill...
"I'll see you at school," Tristen added, pressing my arm again. Then he bent down, and in a gesture I found incredibly mature, kissed my cheek. Only I shifted a little, caught off-guard, not used to being that near to a guy, and the corners of our lips brushed.
"Sorry," I murmured, even more embarrassed--and kind of appalled with myself. I'd never even come close to kissing a guy on the lips under any circumstances, let alone on such a terrible day. Not that I'd really
anything, of course, and yet... It just seemed wrong to even
anything but death at that moment. How could I even think about how some guy felt, how he smelled, how it had been just to give up and be held by somebody stronger than me? My father was DEAD. "Sorry," I muttered again, and I think I was kind of apologizing to Dad, too.
"It's okay," Tristen reassured me, smiling a little. He was the first person who'd dared to smile at me since the murder. I didn't know what to make of that, either. When should people smile again?
"See you, okay?" he said, releasing my arm.
I hugged myself, and it seemed a poor substitute for the embrace I'd just been offered. "Sure. See you. Thanks for coming." I followed his progress as Tristen wandered off through the graves, bending over now and then to brush some snow off the tombstones, read an inscription, or maybe check a date, not hurrying, like graveyards were his natural habitat. Familiar territory.
Tristen Hyde had come for ... me.
But there was no more time to reflect on whatever motives had driven this one particular classmate to attend a stranger's burial, because suddenly the funeral director was tapping my shoulder, telling me that it was time to say any final goodbyes before the procession of black cars pulled away from the too-white tent and the discreetly positioned backhoe hurried in to do its job because there was more snow in the forecast.
"Okay," I said, retrieving my mother and guiding her by the hand, forcing us both to bow our heads one last time.
We sealed my father's grave on a day of stark contrasts, of black against white, and it was the last time I'd ever find myself in a place of such extremes. Because in the months after the dirt fell on the coffin, my life began to shift to shades of gray, almost like the universe had taken a big stick and stirred up the whole scene at that cemetery, mixing up everything and repainting my world. As it turned out, my father wasn't quite the man we'd all thought he was.
Nothing and no one, as I would come to learn, would turn out to be quite what they'd seemed back on that day.
Not even me.
And Tristen ... He would prove to be the trickiest, the most complicated, the most compelling of all the mysteries that were about to unravel.
THE FIRST PERIOD
of the first day of my senior year kicked off with an academic ritual that I'd dreaded since my earliest days in school.
The choosing of partners.
"Come up and get your get new lab manuals, a copy of the text, and then pair up at the lab stations," our advanced chemistry teacher, Mr. Messerschmidt, said, directing our attention to the front of the room, where his long desk held neat stacks of books and papers waiting for us. He did a quick head count, lips moving as he pointed at us, one by one. "We're
to have an odd number," he added, frowning, like the tally hadn't turned out as planned. "So somebody'll have to work alone this year, if everyone shows."
No ... not an odd number ...
I felt my heart race, the way it always did when there was a chance that I might end up alone. One year in gym class, I'd been the odd girl out for square dancing two weeks in a row, standing in
solitary shame against the wall until the teacher forced somebody else to switch out so I could have a turn. And even though chemistry was my best subject, that was no guarantee that Jill Jekel would find a partner here, either.
As I moved to get my manual and book, I tried not to look desperate, even as I made vague attempts at eye contact. Becca was in the class, but she was so popular ... I looked in her direction, but Seth Lanier was telling her some joke, making her laugh. She'd probably team with Seth ...
Tucking my stick-straight, brown hair that was forever escaping from my ponytail behind my ear, I reached for the lab manual, trying to look relaxed and nonchalant. I could always act like I
to work alone, if worst came to worst.
I glanced over to see Darcy Gray edging in next to me, snapping up a manual, and I felt a surge of hope, albeit one tempered with skepticism.
Darcy seemed to be winding up to tell me something. Or
me something. Was there a chance that
was going to ask me to partner? Because we were the two best students in the room ... It made sense ...
"What's up?" I greeted her, hoisting the heavy book Mr. Messerschmidt had picked for us. Sterne and Anwar's
Foundations of the Chemical World, 17th Edition.
A classic, trustworthy text. My father had kept an earlier edition in his office at home. It was, of course, still there, if we ever unlocked the door to that sacred, forbidden space.
"I just wanted to tell you that station three sucks," Darcy said, taking her own copy from the pile. She scowled at the cover, like 9
she disapproved, not even looking at me as she spoke. "I had three last year, and the Bunsen burners don't work right. It totally screwed me over, and Messerschmidt wouldn't let me change."
"Oh." So that was it. Darcy was tipping me off about a faulty lab station. Which was nice, I guessed. But not what I'd hoped for. I felt my cheeks warming, wondering if Darcy had any clue that I'd sort of expected her to ask me to be her partner. "Thanks."
"No problem," she said, still not looking at me as she headed for station one--and her boyfriend, Todd Flick. Gorgeous Todd, not a brain in his head, but he'd take Darcy's directions without complaint or question. He was probably the perfect partner for somebody as domineering as Darcy.