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Under my skin, p.5

Under My Skin, page 5

 

Under My Skin
 


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  I cringed. So much for a clean slate. By now I was probably on a teacher-rotated suicide watch, with the schedule posted in the staff room.

  “If this is about what happened last year…” Mortified, I shot a look over my shoulder, but Wade had already left. My late, great fondness for box cutters remained safely filed away.

  “Obviously physics didn’t happen for you last year,” Mr. Philips said in his Gregorian-chant-like tone—another reason I was failing his class. “Things will be different here at Redgrave High. You see, Eryn, we believe in our students. We believe in their potential…” He eased into full-lecture mode.

  It took five long minutes of teacher rhetoric before Mr. Phillips outlined his plan. It was pretty straightforward. Either Brit tutored me in physics, or I couldn’t take the class.

  “Oh, I can so totally do that,” Brit agreed.

  I glared at her, but couldn’t really object. Brit had a brain, and I needed to borrow it. We agreed to meet every day after school for one hour.

  “What’re you doing for lunch?” Brit asked as we left the room. “We’re starved,” she said, pointing from her bright smile to the skull on her T-shirt who did indeed look famished.

  I didn’t laugh. Not only had she lied to me about Alec, but she’d been giving me the evil eye for talking to Wade. Apparently to Brit, friendship meant running my life. No, thank you.

  She grabbed my arm as I turned away. “Look, I know I screwed up, but I can explain.” She pressed her lips together, then sighed impatiently. “But you have to hang with me for more than five seconds, or the whole let-me-spill-my-guts thing doesn’t work. Besides, I had no idea you were a hunter yesterday. I was only trying to nix your interest in Alec before you got hurt.” She crossed her arms. “You can’t tell me you haven’t been creative with the truth a time or two. All hunters lie.”

  She had a point. I’d lied so much in my lifetime, it was hard to believe anyone ever told the truth. I would have done the same thing in her place, protected a friend from certain heartache—a clueless human girl with no paranormal knowledge would get chewed up and spit out by a hunter.

  “You talk, I’ll eat,” I said finally. But I couldn’t stomach the thought of the bologna sandwich Sammi had stuffed in my backpack. My uncle’s wife pseudo-parented a tad too hard, first with overdecorating my room and then with making my lunches like I was six. Besides, wilted lettuce never did appeal. For the last week I’d been hanging out in the library at lunch, munching on a granola bar. My way of avoiding a lonely table in the cafeteria while the whole school watched me eat. “How’s the cafeteria food? I haven’t tried it yet.”

  Brit studied me. “I think you’re ready.”

  “For what?”

  “Clogged arteries.” She started down the hall, her heavy boots clunking loudly enough for an entire military parade. “We better go together. I can point out the least toxic items on the menu. But first there’s something important you’ve got to see. I think it will put last night into perspective for you.”

  As we rounded the corner, a skinny blonde slammed into Brit knocking her against the wall.

  “Sorry,” the girl tossed over her shoulder, barely breaking stride.

  Brit pushed away from the locker she’d crashed into. Strands of her straight black hair, charged with static, floated around her head. With her flying hair, goth clothes, and super-pale foundation, Brit had a kind of Bride of Frankenstein look going on. But I suppose the real Bride of Franky was probably taller.

  I fought back a grin.

  “You okay?” I scooped up her backpack, surprised at the weight. She must have crammed every textbook for the whole year inside.

  “Yeah.” She glowered down the hallway. “There goes your new boyfriend’s usual type. Wade likes them blonde, brainless, and with boobs out to here.” She held her hands at a physically impossible distance from her chest, then glanced at the front of my shirt and shrugged.

  I resisted the urge to roll my shoulders back and stick out my chest. Not that it would make much difference. I’d even put in extra effort this morning and worn a padded bra to fill out Paige’s hand-me-down shirt. Regrettably, the bra slipped around because I had nothing to hold it in place. I’d definitely gotten shafted in the boobage department.

  Brit led me down the hall and paused at a six-foot-high trophy cabinet outside the gymnasium. Sports trophies, banners, and photos decorated the glass shelving. She pointed to a section featuring Redgrave’s community hockey league.

  “Here are the guys from our school who made the town team.” Brit pointed to a group shot of guys in hockey gear. They stood in a rink, helmets at their hips, their hair mussed and smiles wide. “Recognize anyone?”

  I stepped closer to the glass to scan the faces. I gestured to a familiar face in the middle. “There’s Wade.” Oh, he looked amazing in all that extra shoulder padding.

  Brit rolled her eyes. “Anyone else?”

  I slid my finger along the glass and studied each face. At the last one, my finger stopped. “That’s the guy from last night. Ethan.” How happy he looked in that photo. How cute and cool. How dead he’d looked on the pet shop floor.

  “What if I told you that he”—she jabbed her finger at a short guy in the middle of the photo—“and he”—at the tall blond on the end—“were the two werewolves we took down before you moved here?”

  I examined the picture again. Three out of the six guys pictured had turned into werewolves? No wonder Alec had sounded so bitter last night. The kills his crew had made couldn’t have been easy. These beasts were once kids they knew, went to school with, grew up with, but now they were taking them down.

  I turned away from the confident, grinning guys in the picture to face Brit.

  “Okay,” I said. “So someone’s targeting Redgrave High, that’s obvious. Why hasn’t anyone done anything about it? Paranorm activity or not, the police should be involved by now.”

  Brit patted me on the back. “You know, I thought you’d never get there. Well done. And now for the whopper.” She leaned closer, her gaze holding mine as she spoke her next words. “My dad’s a cop on the force and was almost fired for asking those questions. Guess whose father is the chief of police? Wade’s. And he’s pointing the finger at Matt and Alec.”

  I pursed my lips. “Oh. That’s ironic. Now you want to blame Wade’s father for the rumors about the Delacroix?” I gave Brit an are-you-feeling-the-irony look. “The same rumors you used to keep me away from Alec? And Wade warned me to stay away from Alec because his family is dangerous.” I crossed my arms. “There’s a lot of finger pointing going on with you guys, and I don’t like being in the middle. I just got to town.”

  “Yeah,” Brit said, nodding. “Don’t you think it’s interesting that all this started right before you showed up? Like maybe there’s a reason you’re here?

  I frowned. “And what would that be?”

  “To help us.” Brit dragged me a bit further down the hall. I let her pull me along, a bit dazed by her logic.

  “Here we are,” Brit announced. “Let’s eat before the big reveal. I can’t unload Redgrave’s secrets on an empty stomach.”

  My mouth watered on cue.

  The weight of grease thickened the air in the crowded cafeteria. My stomach rumbled again, loudly. Brit laughed and handed me a tray.

  The long line started way back at the dessert coolers, which was fine by me. I loaded my tray with goodies.

  “I hate you,” Brit said, eyeing my chocolate pudding, donut, and huge brownie. “How do you stay thin, eating like that? I’ve been on a diet since fifth grade. Have you seen me in shorts?” She pinched her thighs. “I’ve so-o-o got to get rid of these.”

  “I’m sure it’ll catch up with me someday.” I shrugged and shuffled forward as the line advanced. “Oh, look.” I skipped toward the steaming grill behind the coolers. “Cheeseburgers!” My hollow stomach rumbled. Hmm…maybe I had been eating more than usual. Please, not another growth spurt.
>
  All eyes were on us as we weaved through chairs to find a table along a row of windows. I plastered on a fake smile. Shouldn’t there be a time limit for staring at the new girl? We plopped down our trays, and, between my rabid bites of greasy burgers, the crowd went on to inspect some other poor schmuck who thought legwarmers really had made a comeback. I quizzed Brit about everything to do with Redgrave, except its paranormal badness.

  “No, we don’t have a recycling program and, yes, I think we need one.” Brit rolled her eyes. “Would you stop trying to distract me?” She drowned a fry in the mountain of ketchup she’d poured on her cafeteria tray and became very businesslike as she fired out the details. “I thought you’d want to know all about the Redgrave situation after last night’s close call. We thought you’d be eager to get more field experience. Banish a few weres. Wage a few battles.”

  “Not really,” I hedged. “I’m trying to cut down.”

  Brit laughed as she drenched another fry. “Guess what? Diets don’t work. You can’t quit cold turkey. It’s a lifestyle thing.”

  I laughed. Giving up hunting wasn’t quite like cutting back on carbs, but I appreciated the comparison. I mashed my fork down into a brownie square, flattening it. Alec’s concern about the number of weres being created was valid, and I could see why he might have asked Brit to approach me, but I was in no position to help.

  “Someone has to be controlling the werewolves.” Brit’s tone shifted from flippant to full-on military briefing. I liked her better when she was being all sarcastic rather than inundating me with facts as if I were already a part of the crew. “Only a strong paranorm could control a pack of werewolves. There are too many for these to be rogues. They weren’t the victims of a random biter. They’re a pack. We could use a hand tracking them down.”

  I ignored her last comment and removed a slimy pickle from my third burger. “I don’t know. You guys seem like a pretty tight team. I’m sure you can handle it.” I shrugged as if I’d lost interest and groped for a change of subject. Wade’s sculpted features flashed through my mind. “Now, why don’t you give me some information that might help me out?”

  Brit cocked a brow.

  “Wade details. I want them all. Where does he hang out? How old is he? What about girls?” I asked.

  Brit choked on her drink. “Oh, he’s into girls. You thought he was gay? Wade might be a lot of things, but gay isn’t one of them.”

  I sighed. After the hard flirting we’d done in physics class, I was pretty sure Wade was interested in more than being my shopping buddy. “No, I meant, what about girlfriends?”

  Brit shook her head. “Haven’t you heard a thing I’ve been saying? Wade’s our top suspect.” At my pleading look, Brit sighed. “Okay, I give. He goes out with a girl for a few dates, and that’s it. He hasn’t had a steady relationship, and he hates girls who cling.” She paused. “Especially Paige. She’s always trying to latch her tentacles around him. They went out for like a minute last year. She barely survived when he brushed her off. She’s been psycho ever since.”

  “Paige McCain?” I asked, but I already knew the answer.

  “The one and only.” Brit slurped the last of her drink and then shot me a questioning glance. “You know her?”

  “Unfortunately.” I shared a bathroom with her every morning—I expected the toilet to be booby-trapped every time I used it. Paige wasn’t the sharing sort. “So you’re saying you think Wade’s a paranorm because he dates a lot?” I shook my head. “Sorry, first you warn me off Alec, and then you end up being one of his hunting crew. THEN you warn me off Wade, because he’s good looking and all the girls like him. Do you see my hesitation here?”

  Brit blinked at me. “There’s more to it than that.”

  “Oh, I’m sure there is, but you know what, Brit?” I stole one of her cold fries. “I don’t want to know. Last night was last night. A onetime thing. I’ve got other things I’m dealing with.” I looked over Brit’s shoulder and winced as I spotted Paige headed in our direction. Coming to the cafeteria had been a mistake. I hid my face behind a napkin.

  “Uh… What are you doing?”

  “Shhhh.” I lowered the napkin so I could peek over it. “She’s coming this way.”

  “Who?” Brit craned her neck.

  “Paige,” I rasped. “I don’t want her to see me. I do not feel like sparring with Rose Harry’s baby at the moment.”

  “Huh?”

  “Haven’t you ever seen that old horror film? A woman gives birth to this demon/child thing. Anyway, that’s my cousin, Paige, remember her? You were saying how nice and psycho she is.”

  I peeked around my napkin. Paige glided down the aisle with all the attitude of a red-carpet diva, accompanied by two cookie-cutter friends, equally blonde and perky. They followed a step behind Paige like good little peons should. I ducked back behind the napkin and spun it in different directions to get the most face-hiding coverage.

  I stared at the floor, horrified, as a trio of cute shoes (shoes I could never wear because what was cute in a size six was fashion blasphemy in a size ten) cat-walked up the aisle and stopped at our table.

  Brit cleared her throat, so I lowered my napkin and said, “You know, Brit, you’re right. These really are made of recycled paper.” I handed it to her. “There’s a little doohickey stamp on each one. It’s barely visible.”

  Brit contemplated the napkin while Paige and her groupies regarded us with loathing. Unless the sneers on their faces were supposed to be model-like pouts. Better yet, it could have been gas. I sucked back a snort of laughter. This was one cluster of girls I wouldn’t try too hard to save from a perfectly good werewolf munching.

  “Oh, Paige, how great to see you here.” I tried to ignore Brit, who let me know what she thought of my recycling cover story by wiping her nose with the napkin, before crumpling it and tossing it over her shoulder.

  I rested my arm along the back of the chair next to me and acted as if the possibility of running into Paige, at the school we both attended, had never occurred to me and wasn’t one of the reasons I’d avoided the cafeteria until now.

  “Brit and I were discussing the benefits of using recycled products. Fascinating stuff,” I said. “Wanna join us?” I nudged one of the empty chairs at our table with my foot, and it scraped along the floor in a noisy invitation.

  “What? Are you kidding?” Paige’s face puckered. “I’m not here for a social visit, cousin.” She spit out the word as if saying it might bring on a contagious disease. “Frankly, I’m surprised you got up the nerve to eat lunch outside of the library. But since you did, I thought it only fair to warn you. You guys better stay away from my table. Don’t get any ideas. Just because we’re related doesn’t mean I have to introduce you to my friends.”

  “Duh.” I snorted. “I’ve been here for a week already, Paige, and this is the first time you’ve spoken to me in public. I think I got the message.” I rolled my eyes at Brit. “Paige likes to state the obvious.” I spoke behind my hand. “She gets it from her mother.”

  Brit smacked her palm on the table and let out a bark of laughter. Even Paige’s groupies snickered. Maybe they’d had Mrs. McCain for kindergarten too.

  Paige shut them up with a glare.

  The blondest one tried to redeem herself. She eyed my shirt. “Hey, Paige, isn’t that the top we bought at the thrift store when we were shopping for Halloween costumes? You planned to dress up like a scarecrow, remember?”

  Paige gave the girl an approving smile. “Why, Michelle, you’re right. I couldn’t bring myself to wear it. I mean, eww, someone else sweated in that shirt.” She shuddered. “I was hoping no one would notice, for Eryn’s sake.” She shot me a pitying glance. “But now it’s out of the bag. You see, Eryn lost all her luggage at the airport, so she has to wear clothes I give her. Isn’t that sad? I’ll tell you all about my loser cousin when we get to our table. Everyone’s got to hear this.” She linked arms with the girls and walked away without anothe
r word.

  They joined a table overflowing with half-a-dozen other girls, more like THEM, the would-be-cheerleader type. Redgrave High barely had the population for a basketball team, let alone frills such as girls bouncing around in micro-mini skirts. Paige’s brood giggled and whispered behind their hands, and, from their glances in our direction, I could tell she was filling everyone in on her woeful little cousin. Why were helpless little Dodo birds extinct while girls like that walked the earth? Seriously, they rendered the entire feminist movement moot.

  I turned back to Brit. “Is it just me, or do you feel unclean?”

  She grimaced. “I can’t believe you guys are related.” Her jaw dropped. “And good lord, you live with Mrs. McCain.”

  “She’s my aunt.” I hastened to make the information easier to digest. “By marriage. She’s married to my father’s brother. And usually Sammi’s not that bad.”

  “Sammi? She has a first name?” Brit laughed. “Isn’t it weird how you don’t think of teachers having first names? Man, I still have nightmares about her kindergarten class. I can’t imagine living with her.” Brit finished off her pudding and cleaned out the plastic container with her finger. “Why don’t you live at home with your parents?”

  Ouch. Family issues. A direct hit. Good thing I was used to analysis. Otherwise I would have told Brit where to go with her probing questions and what to do when she got there. I swallowed hard. This was it. Once I said the words, there’d be weirdness. She’d feel sorry for me, I’d feel sorry for myself, and we’d slip into a pity spiral.

  “My parents are dead.” I pushed my tray aside, appetite gone.

  A look of sadness crossed Brit’s face. She started to speak, then stopped, and reached for her backpack.

  “Then we have even more in common.” She plunked her backpack over her shoulder. “My brother died in a car crash four months ago. They found his car wrapped around a light post on Main Street at two o’clock in the morning. Wade’s father said it was a cut-and-dried case. Said Blake was driving under the influence.” Her face settled into harsh lines. “Only my brother didn’t drink. He wouldn’t, not after growing up like we did.”

 
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