Undone, page 1
Before She Knew Me
When I Saved Her
After I Left Her
Excerpt from Unbreakable
About the Author
About the Publisher
Certain moments in my life are imprinted in my memory.
They’re easy to recall with perfect clarity, whether I want to remember them or not. Any small thing can trigger them: a phrase, a smell, a thought. It brings everything back like I’m reliving that moment, a brief scene in the movie of my life, complete with how horrible I felt at the time. And I usually felt horrible in those moments, because for some reason it’s the moments that I want to forget that stick around.
Like in eighth grade when I had my first kiss with Jane Sheriden, and my arm got stuck awkwardly between her head and the couch: Just thinking about it still makes me cringe. Or when Ms. Wittak caught me cheating in algebra freshman year because I’d saved the formulas I needed to remember in a fake game on my graphing calculator, and she tore up my test in front of the whole class.
Then there were memories that were more significant.
The pivotal moments that changed everything.
Those I don’t want to forget. Now that I’ve had too much time to think about them, to replay them over and over again in my mind, they’re the things that I wouldn’t take back, that I wouldn’t do over.
Because of Janelle.
She saved my life when we were ten. She anchored me by being who she was, and somewhere along the line, I fell in love with her.
At just about every significant moment in my life, she was there. Whether she knew it or not.
The first time I opened a portal, it was an accident.
It was nine days after my birthday at a joint party with one of my best friends. It was at his house. We played games in his backyard, ate ice-cream cake, opened presents, then challenged everyone to a video game tournament. My brother was older, though, and he had an advantage. I ended up knocked out quickly, as did three of my friends.
Once we were eliminated, we got bored, so we went in search of something else. We just didn’t expect to find what we did. In the basement, instead of old board games, we found his father’s home lab, and when we did, even the locked door didn’t keep us out. We knew it was where he kept his failed experiments, and we wanted to check them out.
One of them wasn’t as failed as we thought, and after messing with the wires, the motor flared to life, connecting to a laser beam, and a portal opened in front of us: a huge black hole that rippled like it was made of oil. We dared one another to touch it, but no one would step up.
I don’t know who shoved who first, but it happened. Somehow, I tripped and fell. And I brought two of the three of them with me: through the portal.
We ended up in another world. In the ocean.
The second time we opened a portal, it was different.
It was because of a girl, and it changed everything.
It all started with a fight.
It was the first Thursday in March of my sophomore year. I know because I kept track of the days and months and years that had passed since we’d fallen through.
It had been an uneventful day. I skateboarded to Eastview, got to first period on time, made an appearance in my first class, ditched my second one to hang out with Eli and a couple of guys while they got high behind the football stadium, and then made it through my last two. At the end of the day, I headed to It’s a Grind for the afternoon coffee that would get me through work.
I didn’t usually frequent the unofficial campus coffee shop. It backed up to the school parking lot and was always crowded, which meant long lines and a high probability of getting sucked into a conversation with someone from class. I didn’t do conversation well. I didn’t know what to say to most people. It was hard to know what to talk about when my mind was on things they wouldn’t understand.
Most days I stopped at a gas station or something because I didn’t have any coffee shop loyalties. I just wanted something strong and convenient and preferably cheap. That day, though, my foster parents had been out of coffee, and I spilled the cup I’d bought on the way to school when a group of freshman girls knocked into me before first period. The caffeine withdrawal, combined with my fourth period world history class, had given me an unbearable headache.
If even one thing had been different: if my foster parents hadn’t run out of coffee, if those girls hadn’t knocked into me, if I had ditched world history, I wouldn’t have been there, and things might not have worked out the way they did.
When the fight broke out, I was trying to place my order. I’d only been in one real fight myself. I was more of a keep-my-head-down-and-stay-out-of-trouble kind of guy. So I didn’t see how it started.
“Small black coffee,” I ordered.
The words had barely left my mouth when the door jingled open, and some guy I didn’t recognize leaned in to shout to one of his friends, “Dude, get out here. There’s a catfight!”
For a split second, the conversations halted. Just about everyone else turned to the door and froze, straining to see behind him to the parking lot where the “catfight” was allegedly taking place. My muscles tensed. Most of the fights near or on Eastview’s campus involved Eli. He had always been the get-right-in-the-middle-of-it kind of guy, and I was his best friend, which made it my responsibility to make sure he didn’t kill someone by accident. Or get killed himself.
Then I remembered he caught a ride with Reid in the new car fifteen minutes ago, and if this was a catfight, it would be girls going at it, not guys. Thankfully, Eli usually stayed away from that. Satisfied that he couldn’t be involved, I forced my shoulders to relax.
If Eli wasn’t beating someone up, I didn’t really care. I looked at the girl behind the cash register and offered her my two dollars, but her eyes were glued to the door.
I didn’t even turn around when the guy behind me said, “Oh shit, that’s Brooke Haslen.”
“Small black coffee,” I said to the cashier, louder this time.
She unfroze, took my money, and asked, “You want me to leave room for milk?” all without looking at me.
I shook my head, about to say “Just black” when I heard it.
It was more a yell than a scream, I guess. It might have even been a word, but it was too far away and too muffled to be sure.
But I recognized the voice.
It was the same one I’d heard six years ago, when she’d pulled me half-drowned out of the ocean.
It was a voice I’d know anywhere.
At least twenty people from Eastview were just huddled together in the parking lot by the chain-link fence that separated the lot from the school grounds. They were standing on their toes, leaning against one another, trying to see what was happening. Everyone was shouting and talking, but I didn’t hear what any of them said. I wasn’t thinking, either. I just pushed my way into the thick of it.
At first, it looked like a blur of hair. Two girls going at each other. Then someone stumbled, and I recognized Janelle Tenner’s dark hair and tanned skin. The sight of her sent a spike of excitement through me. It was what I felt whenever I saw her.
I liked her. I always had. Ever since I came through the portal. If she h
But she was there: an angel in a pink bathing suit.
She pulled me to the surface and swam us back to shore. She held on to me and didn’t let go. She saved my life.
She didn’t know I existed. Yet.
I pushed closer. Her head whipped back from a full-on punch. Her nose was bleeding, her T-shirt was ripped, and something had cut the skin above her left eye. That made my stomach ache. She was so pretty and funny and perfect . . . and someone had done this to her. Sweat prickled the back of my neck.
Her legs swung up, kicking at the air, and I realized two girls were holding her arms. I didn’t say anything. My throat was too tight to speak. Hands loose and ready, I pushed people out of the way so I could step in and break it up.
I grabbed the girl closest to me and tried to pull her off Janelle’s arm. She struggled, elbowing me in the ribs.
Janelle yelled again and threw her body forward, trying to get free. Seeing her like that caused my anger to swell, and before I could stop it, I felt it turn into energy.
It rushed through me, a thick heat that seared each part of my body, from my chest down my arms, eager to be channeled into something productive.
There wasn’t a thing I could do to stop it.
It burned as it moved through my fingertips, into the girl I was holding on to. She yelped and grabbed her arm, letting go of Janelle.
With one arm free, Janelle reached out, swatting Brooke’s hand in time to keep it from hitting her face. The noise of the crowd tripled.
I stepped back. My hands tingled from the rush, and I smelled burning skin. The crowd pulsed around me but didn’t recognize that anything was amiss.
“Shit.” I jerked back and glanced down at my hands. I hadn’t meant for that to happen. I’d been so angry I’d burned her. The portal had done more than just send me to another world. It had made me a freak who could burn things when I got angry.
In front of me the girl was still holding her shoulder. She didn’t know the pain was my fault.
The skin was branded red. The burn, a distorted version of my handprint.
I took a deep breath and willed my anger to dissipate. There was a single drop of blood on the ground, I noticed. A dark red circle standing out against the black pavement.
I focused on Brooke and pushed back into the center of the fight. I wasn’t the only one. A couple of guys on the baseball team swarmed in as well, and we got in between them, grabbing Brooke by the shoulders and pushing her back through the crowd, which didn’t miss the opportunity to boo us.
When it was over, I turned back to look for Janelle. This was my chance to talk to her. I took a deep breath, trying to steady my emotions, and I wiped my sweaty hands on my shorts. I hoped that they wouldn’t shake and that my voice wouldn’t crack and that the words would come. I’d just jumped into a fight for her. I’d ask her if she was okay and offer to walk her home. I’d tell her Brooke was just a jealous bitch. She would laugh and then pause to look at me. She might first recognize me as the guy she borrowed a pencil from in math freshman year, but eventually she would remember pulling me out of the ocean that day we first met. We’d laugh about the coincidence, her saving me all those years ago, and now me jumping in to return the favor. She wouldn’t care that this situation wasn’t quite as dire. She’d think it was romantic anyway, and I’d finally work up the nerve to ask her to get dinner with me Friday night.
Only I was too late. Janelle wasn’t alone. Kevin Collins stood next to her in his baseball uniform, squirting his water bottle at her face. She grimaced as she used the ripped neck of her T-shirt to wipe the cut above her eye. He acted like he was going to squirt her again, and she shoved his shoulder, in a way that only longtime friends can.
I watched them, for probably a few seconds too long, before I swallowed down the disappointment of another missed opportunity and headed back to It’s a Grind. I could at least get my coffee.
“Come watch the game. I’ll give you a ride home after,” Kevin was saying as I passed them.
“No thanks. I’ve heard what happens when you give girls a ride home,” she said, walking away. For a split second I thought about going after her.
“Hey, I’m just trying to be nice!” Kevin called.
She looked back but kept walking. “You forget, Kevin, I know you. You aren’t capable of nice.”
I paused. If I went after her now, she would think I was like him, trying to take advantage of the situation. Or she would think I was weird, jumping into a fight to help a girl that I’ve never even spoken to. Worse, she would be right.
I pulled my eyes away from her and went inside to buy my coffee. I’d get rid of this headache and go to work, and today would just be another day in a long line of days that I didn’t manage to talk to her.
By the time I got off work, Elijah and Reid had heard about it. I knew that as soon as I stepped outside the shop and saw them waiting for me.
We were hanging out tonight, we hung out every night, but even with Reid’s new car, they never would have come to pick me up.
Not unless they were pissed.
I didn’t say anything as I got into the backseat. There was really nothing for me to say. I wasn’t about to deny anything: They wouldn’t believe me. Besides, we didn’t lie to each other. Everybody else, sure, but not each other. Not after everything we’d been through.
Eli turned and stared me down as Reid drove through Pacific Beach.
I looked straight at him and refused to flinch. I couldn’t take back what I’d done. I didn’t want to.
It wasn’t until we were pulling onto the 5 that finally Reid couldn’t take it anymore. “You want to explain yourself?” he asked, breaking the silence.
I shrugged. If they’d heard about the fight, they’d know who was involved and why I jumped in. They’d have heard about the burn on that girl’s arm, and they’d know what had happened. I didn’t need to explain it.
“What the fuck, man?” Eli said.
“You broke the rules!” Reid added.
“I know.” I did know, and it wasn’t something I did lightly, which they should both know.
I was the one who’d set the rules. Coming through the portal years ago had side effects on all of us. When we got angry, we burned things with our touch. It happened to Eli first. He lost control of his temper while arguing with his foster parents. He grabbed a plastic baseball bat they’d given him, planning to snap it in half, and instead it melted in his hands. After that I did the same to a plastic water bottle, Reid burned a hole through his couch cushions, and Eli almost blew up his Christmas tree. That’s when we started to put it together.
There was something different about us.
It wasn’t just the world we lived in that had changed. We had too. The portal altered us.
Burning things in anger was problematic. We needed to know how to control it, so I started studying what I could do. I channeled the anger and tried to change things, then I took the emotion out of it, and I tried to reverse it. If I could melt ice into water, maybe I could turn it back, too.
The real progress, though, came when Brett Edgerly stole my lunch money in seventh grade. Reid gave me half his sandwich and Eli offered to beat him up, but I just watched Brett from across the cafeteria as he used my money to buy two twenty-ounce bottles of Coke. I filled a paper cup with water and stared at it, wishing that soda was mine. I tried to convince myself that it didn’t matter, then I got an idea. I thought about Coke and the molecular structure of it, and I went over to where Brett was sitting and let him call me a loser. Then I reached over and grabbed his Coke, and as I focused on it, I felt that familiar burn in my chest. It built, spreading into my arms, and I urged it onto the bottle. By the time Brett pushed me and grabbed his soda away from me, the carbonation was gone. I had turned it flat.
That’s when I realized the extent of what we
Which was why I came up with limits to impose on us. Rules to keep us all in check.
No using our abilities on other people.
No using our abilities in anger.
And no using our abilities in front of other people. That was the easiest way for us to get turned into some governmental science experiment.
I had just broken all three.
Eli was still staring at me. “You know? That’s it? You fucking know?”
I glanced out the window and watched the lights flicker by. There wasn’t anything else to say.
“You can’t just go around making rules and then breaking them when you feel like it,” Reid added.
“It wasn’t about that,” I said. “It was Janelle, she was in trouble—”
“She’s always in trouble!” Reid yelled. “And you always have to run to her rescue, but she doesn’t even know you’re alive. You should be helping us figure out how to get home.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing?” I said.
“I know what you’re doing. You’re risking exposing us because you’re too busy worrying about some chick who doesn’t matter.” Reid slammed his hand into the steering wheel to accentuate his point.
“I care about her,” I said, trying to keep my voice even.
“You don’t even know her.”
I looked at Eli.
“Dude, you don’t,” he added. I knew what he meant: Just because she saved my life that day in the ocean, that didn’t mean I knew her. The truth is, we had never had a real conversation.
I couldn’t tell him that I did know her, though. That I knew her expressions and her movements, that I understood the emotions in her voice. That wasn’t what mattered. Even if I thought I knew her, she didn’t know me.