Authors: Marie Rutkoski
I was used to people disagreeing with the way I saw the world. That’s why my DCFS file was brick-thick and I would never be voted Prom Queen or Most Likely to Do Anything. I considered the idea that Conn could disagree with what I had said but would still try to understand how I felt. This seemed as rare and lovely as the planet I cradled in the palm of my hand.
“Let’s ditch school,” he said.
“Ditch?” I glanced at my watch. If we began walking now, I wouldn’t be late for first period. “I don’t know, Conn. I
“I thought you were supposed to be working on Whatever You Want. Maybe you want to spend the day with me.”
I looked at him. Why did he have to speak so seductively, when he couldn’t mean it? Carefully, I said, “I don’t want to miss English. I also like English.”
“Ah, but you hate Pre-Calculus.”
He had a point. “What about lunch? My friends will be looking for me.”
“Your friends monopolize you.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is. They’re like a fortress with a sign that says
TOUCH DARCY JONES AND WE WILL DESTROY YOU.
I find it surprisingly … touching, actually. I admire loyalty.”
I scoffed. “They would never hurt anybody.”
“There are different ways of hurting people. Raphael would go the most obvious route, of course. He would fight with fists. James—no, you call him Jims, don’t you?—has a gift for psychological warfare. As for Lily, she is perhaps the most dangerous of the three, because she’s the decision maker, and the others will follow her lead. You couldn’t have chosen a better army.”
I stared. I had never thought about them in this way. “That’s not why they’re my friends.”
“Maybe not. But they can do without you for one afternoon.”
I shook my head and began striding toward the school. “My foster mom would have a litter of kittens if I ditched.”
He stepped in front of me. “Your foster mother need never know.” He pulled two pink slips of paper out of his back pocket. “These are dated and signed excuse slips from the nurse’s office. You can go to Art, then meet me by Door 6. We’ll slip out for a very leisurely lunch, return in time for English, and as far as anyone official is concerned, we were in the nurse’s office for second to sixth periods.”
“Exactly how are we supposed to get back into the school? The doors are locked from the outside, except the main entrance, and I hope you don’t think we’ll be able to make the security guard believe that the nurse’s office is located off-campus.” The Ingleside Home girls had taught me how to jimmy open locks, but it had been a long time since I’d practiced.
unlocked, inside and out,” said Conn. “I’ve checked. It’s left that way for the maintenance workers. Come on, Darcy.” His voice grew alluring. “Please.”
Everything in the world suddenly distilled down to that word and this truth: he wanted me to come.
didn’t matter. The wanting was enough.
“Fine,” I said. “But since you’ve already planned our escape route, I get to pick the destination.”
That’s how we ended up at a diner by the interstate. It wasn’t exotic or hip or filled with zippy roller-coaster rides or anything fun like that, but it was close enough to Lakebrook High that we’d easily make it back in time for English class.
As we slid into a booth, I said, “Did you get kicked out of your last school?”
He blinked, clearly surprised. “No.”
“Reform school,” I guessed again.
“You used to go to a reform school.”
He laughed. “Of course not. What makes you say that?”
“Those pink slips from the nurse’s office. You must have stolen them. Plus, you knew Door 6 was unlocked from the outside, which
didn’t know after more than a year at Lakebrook High. There are at least thirty doors in that godforsaken school. Did you check every one? Did you transfer here to case the joint?” I began to tease. “Are you planning some big heist? There are diamonds in the principal’s office, aren’t there?”
He shook his head. “You couldn’t be farther from the truth. I attended a kind of … military academy. And I was an excellent student.”
That explained a few things. Conn’s clean-cut look. The athletic build. A certain amount of fearlessness.
The waitress came to take our order, and after we handed back our vinyl menus, Conn repeated, “
. You really thought I was some kind of criminal?”
“Don’t take it personally. I’m the one with a DCFS file that says I’m violent, disobedient, and impertinent. Oh, and strange.”
His brows lifted. “Strange?”
“‘Eerie’ was the exact word.”
“That’s not the word I’d use.”
“Oh?” I asked while my courage was high. “And what’s that?”
He murmured it. “Ethereal.”
Such a beautiful word. It thrilled through my veins. Yet he had sounded so bitter. He fell silent, and seemed to regret having spoken.
“To be honest,” I said lightly, “I
kind of strange.” Somehow I began telling him exactly what I had been trying to forget for more than two weeks: that I thought I’d seen my hand vanish. What a ridiculous thing to imagine, right? I told it all as one big joke. I’d meant to make him laugh, because he laughed so rarely and when he did it could become a deep and free music that I couldn’t help longing to hear. But he stayed serious. Pensive. His gaze wavered over me.
The waitress came, plunked down pancakes and a carafe of coffee, and slouched away. I filled my cup and took a sip. The silence stretched. It occurred to me that Jims must have a heart of steel, to always try so hard to be funny. I cast around for some way out of the awkward silence. “Doesn’t your mom worry about you riding a motorcycle? I mean, it seems like something a mother would do.”
He seemed to consider his answer carefully. “No. She doesn’t. She’s … used to that sort of thing. My dad and I tinker around in the garage, rebuilding engines. Sometimes … sometimes my little sister sneaks in and plays with the parts.” Conn’s voice took on a dreamy quality, and I could hear, in every syllable, how much he loved his family. “We live in a big house—old, beautiful—and my mom always complains that we get grease everywhere. But part of her likes it, too, because it’s a reminder that we’re there.”
“That sounds … perfect.”
He looked at me. I hadn’t been able to keep the wistfulness out of my voice. “It is,” he said softly, and the sudden certainty that sharing this with me meant something to him pressed a finger right on my heart.
Then he asked, “What’s your foster mother like? The one you have now.”
I described my first meeting with Marsha, how I’d turned up at the DCFS-organized “date” at McDonalds to find that she had already ordered for both of us: two quarter pounders, large fries, and shakes. In my snottiest tone, I informed her I was a vegetarian. She chirped back that she’d eat both burgers then, and I could have the fries. And the shake, she added. I must love shakes. Everyone does.
Conn said, “You like Marsha, don’t you?”
I’d always thought that what you saw was what you got with her: someone cheerful and a bit goofy. Her hidden wad of cash did make me wonder, though, if she really was so simple, and if I knew her as well as I’d believed. But one thing was sure. “She’s got a good heart.”
He paused. “I think you do, too.”
I let that sink in like heat from the first sip of hot chocolate on a snowy day. And since I was thinking about sweet things, I asked, “Why does J. Alfred say, ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’ The poem’s supposed to be about whether he’ll tell a girl he loves her, right? Not about
Conn laid his hands on the table, and I noticed that his nails were cut to the quick, his knuckles nicked with tiny white scars. He folded his fingers, hiding them behind each other. “Peaches are messy,” he said. “Sticky. I suppose all his questions boil down to the same thing. ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ and ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’ are the same as ‘Do I dare to tell her the truth?’ Because
question will change his world, and the consequences…”
He didn’t finish. He didn’t have to. I got it.
The consequences would be messy.
* * *
E MADE IT
back in time for English class. After English, I was kidnapped.
Conn and I were walking down the hall, side by side, when I heard heavy footsteps racing behind us, coming closer. Conn glanced back in alarm. He almost reached for me, then checked himself. I had enough time to see his face melt into amused resignation before a pair of hands seized and scooped me up.
“Sinner!” Jims took off down the hall with me in his arms.
“Hey!” I thumped his shoulder. “I’m not a sack of potatoes!”
“No, you’re a
.” He jogged down the stairs and ran up to Lily and Raphael, who were waiting with folded arms.
“I told you so,” Lily said to the others. To me, she said, “I can’t believe you walked out of Art without mentioning you were going to ditch.”
.” Jims set me down onto my feet.
“It was just a little ditch,” I said. “What do you care, Jims? You’ve been trying to talk me into cutting class for as long as I’ve known you.”
“Exactly. Yet you have always denied me. Then along comes a boy who crooks his sexy finger at you, and you ditch at the drop of a hat.”
“Leaving me alone in Pre-Calc,” Raphael added.
I winced, but defended myself. “You’re making a big deal over nothing.”
“What if you’d been caught?” Lily demanded.
I told them about the excuse slips. “Conn had a plan.”
“Screw Conn’s plan,” said Lily. “You still could have gotten into trouble.”
Jims fell to his knees and lifted his hands in prayer. “I’m begging you, Darcy: don’t become a cliché.”
“The one who abandons her friends for some guy,” said Lily.
After that day, Conn sought me out at school. He would walk with me in the halls and wait outside my classroom doors as if he had no place else to be except at my side. Meanwhile, Jims inquired when I was moving to Connland. “Are you boning up on your Connish?” he asked. “Because I hear that language is a hard tongue to master.”
Lily went quiet on the whole subject, but her silence had a determined edge to it, as if she’d taken a personal oath Never to Speak His Name. As for Raphael, he looked gloomier and doomier. My friends probably would have liked Conn better if I’d told them about the attack outside the café, but I kept that to myself. They’d pester me to report it to the police, and insist on being my personal bodyguards. The last thing I needed was a fuss over something I wanted to forget.
I knew that my friends were beginning to see Conn as an unhealthy addiction, and that at some point one of them was going to try to stage an intervention. But I didn’t expect it to be Raphael. At least, I didn’t think that Taylor Allen would be with him when it happened.
Taylor sailed ahead of him through the coffeehouse door and zeroed in on the best seat: a paisley sofa that still had most of its stuffing, tucked in a far corner. She dropped a snakeskin purse on the table in front of her, gave Raphael a meaningful look, and got comfy.
Raphael approached the counter with an expression so sheepish that a sheep would be jealous. “Hey, Darcy. Can I have the usual and, um, a mocha latte with extra whipped cream and sprinkled cocoa on top?”
I stared. “Are you on a
with Taylor Allen?”
“Are you on crack?” He pitched his voice low, to match mine. “No, I’m not on a date with her.”
Here’s what I haven’t mentioned about Taylor. She was gorgeous. Not even in a plastic doll kind of way. She was a long-limbed brunette who looked ready to drink down your soul like a shot of tequila, with a bite of lemon and an extra lick of salt.
“We’re studying our lines for the play,” Raphael said. “She’s really serious about giving a good performance.”
“I bet.” I poured beans into the grinder. “Taylor puts on quite the act.”
Raphael gave me a narrow look. “She’s not that bad, actually. And, speaking of putting on acts, how’s Mr. I Wear a Cologne and It’s Called
“Mysterious?” I ground the beans into dust. “Jims thinks Conn’s the most boring thing since baked potato chips.”
“I’m not Jims. My head’s not buried in sci-fi craziness where humans grow superpowers and extra robotic limbs. I see things for what they are. I see
they are. Have you ever seen McCrea angry? Happy? No. He never shares what he’s thinking. There’s something about him that’s … I don’t know. Calculating.”
“Maybe I know him better than you do.”
you know about him?”
I wanted to tell Raphael that his first impressions of Conn were wrong, as mine had been. That Conn was kind, thoughtful. A good listener. If he kept his feelings close to his chest, who was I, of all people, to blame him? But instead of saying any of this, I focused on preparing the drinks.
“Darcy,” Raphael said in a gentler tone. “We don’t want you to get hurt.”
I slammed down the tamper. “Well, maybe it hurts that you think I’ll get hurt.”
Raphael held up his hands in surrender. “Okay. Forget I said anything. I’ll leave you alone.” He started to walk back to Taylor.
“Wait,” I called. He turned, and I saw how worried his eyes were. “I spend a lot of time with Conn because of our project.”
“I sincerely doubt that.”
“Also … he helps me.”
“Helps? With what?”
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about who I was before the DCFS picked me up. Conn wants to get to know me. Is that so bad?
want to get to know
. When he asks me questions, I want to know the answers. I want to
He reached across the counter for my hand. “I know you don’t remember a lot about your childhood, but maybe that’s for the best. Maybe there’s a good reason for it.” He let go. “Will you at least tell me what this morning was all about?”