HarperCollins Children’s Books An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins Children’s Books 2009
Copyright © Aprilynne Pike 2009
Aprilynne Pike asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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Source ISBN: 9780007314362
Ebook Edition © JANUARY 2010 ISBN: 9780007362943
To Kenny - the method behind my madness
Laurel was mesmerised, staring at the pale things with wide eyes. They were terrifyingly beautiful - too beautiful for words.
Laurel turned to the mirror again, her eyes on the hovering petals that floated beside her head. They looked almost like wings.
Table of Contents
Laurel’s shoes flipped a cheerful rhythm that defied her dark mood. As she walked through the halls of Del Norte High, people watched her pass with curious eyes.
After double-checking her schedule, Laurel found the biology lab and hurried to claim a seat by the windows. If she had to be indoors, she wanted to at least see outside. The rest of the class filed in slowly. One boy smiled in her direction as he walked to the front of the classroom and she tried to muster one up in return. She hoped he didn’t think it was a grimace.
A tall, thin man introduced himself as Mr James and began passing out textbooks. The beginning of the book seemed fairly standard - classifications of plants and animals, she knew those - then it started to move into basic human anatomy. Around page eighty, the text started to resemble a foreign language. Laurel grumbled under her breath. This was going to be a long semester.
As Mr James called out the roll, Laurel recognised a few names from her first two classes that morning, but she knew it was going to be a long time before she matched even half of them to the faces that surrounded her. She felt lost amid the sea of unfamiliar people.
Her mom had assured her that every sophomore would feel the same - after all, it was their first day in high school too - but no one else looked lost or scared. Maybe being lost and scared was something you got used to after years of high school.
Homeschooling had worked just fine for Laurel over the last ten years; she didn’t see any reason for that to change. But her parents were determined to do everything right for their only child. When she was five, that meant being homeschooled in a tiny town. Apparently, now that she was fifteen, it meant high school in a slightly less tiny town.
The room grew quiet and Laurel snapped to attention when the teacher repeated her name. “Laurel Sewell?”
“Here,” she said quickly.
She squirmed as Mr James studied her over the rim of his glasses and then moved on to the next name.
Laurel released the breath she’d been holding and pulled out her notebook, trying to draw as little attention to herself as possible.
As the teacher explained the semester’s curriculum, her eyes kept straying to the boy who had smiled at her earlier. She had to stifle a grin when she noticed him sneaking glances at her too.
When Mr James released them for lunch, Laurel gratefully slid her book into her bag.
She looked up. It was the boy who had been watching her. His eyes caught her attention first. They were a bright blue that contrasted with the olive tone of his skin. His slightly wavy, light brown hair was on the longish side and slipped across his forehead in a soft arc.
“You’re Laurel, right?” Below the eyes was a warm but casual smile with very straight teeth. Braces probably, Laurel thought as her tongue unconsciously ran over her own naturally straight teeth.
“Yeah.” Her voice caught in her throat and she coughed, feeling stupid.
“I’m David. David Lawson. I - I wanted to say hi. And welcome to Crescent City, I guess.”
Laurel forced a small smile. “Thanks,” she said. “Want to sit with me and my friends for lunch?”
“Where?” Laurel asked.
David looked at her strangely. “In…the cafeteria?”
“Oh,” she said, disappointed. He seemed nice, but she was tired of being cooped up inside. “Actually, I’m going to go find a place outside.” She paused. “Thank you, though.”
“Outside sounds good to me. Want some company?”
“Sure. I’ve got my lunch in my backpack, so I’m all set. Besides,” he said, hefting his bag on to one shoulder, “you shouldn’t sit alone your first day.”
“Thanks,” she said after a tiny hesitation. “I’d like that.”
They walked out to the back lawn together and found a grassy spot that wasn’t too damp. Laurel spread her jacket on the ground and sat on it; David kept his on.
“Aren’t you cold?” he asked, looking sceptically at her jeans shorts and tank top.
She slipped out of her shoes and dug her toes into the thick grass. “I don’t get cold very often - at least not here. If we go somewhere with snow, I’m miserable. But this weather’s perfect for me.” She smiled awkwardly. “My mom jokes that I’m cold-blooded.”
“Lucky you. I moved here from LA about five years ago and I’m still not used to the temperature.”
“It’s not that cold.”
“Sure,” David said with a grin, “but it’s not that warm either. After our first year here, I looked up the weather records; did you know that the difference between the average temperature in July and December is only fourteen degrees? Now that is messed up.”
They fell silent as David ate a sandwich and Laurel poked at a salad with a fork.
“My mom packed me an extra cupcake,” David said, breaking the silence. “Want it?” He held out a pretty cupcake with blue frosting. “It’s homemade.”
David looked at her salad doubtfully, then back at the cupcake.
Laurel realised what David was thinking and sighed. Why was that the first conclusion everyone always jumped to? Surely she wasn’t the only person in the world who just really liked vegetables. Laurel tapped one fingernail against her can of Sprite. “It’s not diet.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“I’m vegan,” Laurel interrupted. “Pretty strict, actually.”
She nodded, then laughed stiffly. “Can’t have too many veggies, right?”
“I guess not.”
David cleared his throat and asked, “So, when did you move here?”
“In May. I’ve been working for my dad a lot. He owns the bookstore downtown.”
“Really?” David asked. “I went in there last week. It’s a great store. I don’t remember seeing you though.”
“That’s my mom’s fault. She dragged me around shopping for school supplies all week. This is the first year I haven’t been homeschooled and my mom’s convinced I don’t have enough supplies.”
“Yeah. They’re forcing me to go to high school this year.”
He grinned. “Well, I’m glad they did.” He looked down at his sandwich for a few seconds before asking, “Do you miss your old town?”
“Sometimes.” She smiled softly. “But it’s nice here. My old town, Orick, is seriously small. Like five hundred people small.”
“Wow” He chuckled. “LA’s just a little bigger than that.”
She laughed and choked on her soda.
David looked like he was ready to ask something else, but the bell sounded and he smiled instead. “Can we do this again tomorrow?” He hesitated for a second, then added, “With my friends, maybe?”
Laurel’s first instinct was to say no, but she’d enjoyed David’s company. Besides, socialising more was yet another reason her mom had insisted on high school this year. “Sure,” she said before she could lose her nerve. “That’d be fun.”
“Awesome.” He stood and offered her his hand. He pulled her to her feet and grinned lopsidedly for a minute. “Well, I’ll…see you around, I guess.”
She watched him walk away. His jacket and loose-fitting jeans looked more or less like everyone else’s, but there was a sureness in his walk that set him apart from the crowd. Laurel was envious of that confident stride.
Laurel threw her backpack on the counter and slumped on to a barstool. Her mom, Sarah, glanced up from the bread she was kneading. “How was school?”
Her hands stopped. “Language, Laurel.”
“Well, it did. And there’s not a better word to describe it.”
“You have to give it some time, hon.”
“Everyone stares at me like I’m a freak.”
“They stare at you because you’re new”
“I don’t look like everyone else.”
Her mom grinned. “Would you want to?”
Laurel rolled her eyes, but she had to admit her mother had scored a point. She might be homeschooled and a little sheltered, but she knew she looked a lot like the models in magazines and on television.
And she liked it.
Adolescence had been kind to her. Her almost translucent white skin hadn’t suffered the effects of acne and her blonde hair had never been greasy. She was a small, lithe fifteen-year-old with a perfectly oval face and light green eyes. She’d always been thin, but not too thin, and had even developed some curves in the last few years. Her limbs were long and willowy and she walked with a dancer’s grace, despite having never taken lessons.
“I meant I dress differently.”
“You could dress like everyone else if you wanted to.”
“Yeah, but they all wear clunky shoes and tight jeans and, like, three shirts all layered on top of each other.”
“I don’t like tight clothes. They’re scratchy and make me feel awkward. And really, who could possibly want to wear clunky shoes? Yuck.”
“So wear what you want. If your clothes are enough to drive would-be friends away they’re not the kind of friends you want.”
Typical mother advice. Sweet, honest, and completely useless. “It’s loud there.”
Her mom stopped kneading and brushed her fringe out of her face, leaving a floury streak on her brow “Sweetheart, you can hardly expect an entire high school to be as quiet as the two of us all alone. Be reasonable.”
“I am reasonable. I’m not talking about necessary noise; they run around like wild monkeys. They shriek and laugh and whine at the top of their lungs. And they make out at their lockers.”
Her mom rested her hand on her hip. Anything else?”
“Yes. The halls are dark.”
“They are not dark,” her mom said, her tone slightly scolding. “I toured that entire school with you last week and all the walls are white.”
“But there are no windows, just those awful fluorescent lights. They’re so fake and they don’t bring any real light to the hallways. They’re just…dark. I miss Orick.”
Her mom began shaping the dough into loaves. “Tell me something good about today. I mean it.”
Laurel wandered over to the fridge.
“No,” her mom said, putting up one hand to stop her. “Something good first.”
“Um…I met a nice guy,” she said, stepping around her mom’s arm and grabbing a soda. “David…David something.”
It was her mom’s turn to roll her eyes. “Of course. We move to a new town and I start you in a brand new school and the first person you latch on to is a guy.”
“It’s not like that.”
Laurel stood silently, listening to the slap of bread dough on the counter.
Laurel drew in a deep breath. “Do I really have to keep going?”
Her mom rubbed her temples. “Laurel, we’ve been through this already.”
“No. We’re not going to argue about it again.” She leaned on the counter, her face close to Laurel’s. “I don’t feel qualified to homeschool you any more. It’s time.”
“But you could order one of those homeschooling programmes. I looked them up online,” Laurel said hurriedly when her mom opened her mouth.
“And how much does it cost?” her mom asked, her voice quiet, one eyebrow raised pointedly.
Laurel was silent.
“Listen,” her mom said, after a pause, “until our property in Orick sells, we don’t have the money for anything extra. You know that.”
Laurel looked down at the counter, her shoulders slumped.
The main reason they’d moved to Crescent City in the first place was because her dad had bought a bookstore down on Washington Street. Early in the year, he’d been driving through and saw a For Sale sign on a bookstore going out of business. Laurel remembered listening to her parents talk for weeks about what they could do to buy the store - a shared dream since they’d first got married - but the numbers never added up.
Then, in late April, a guy named Jeremiah Barnes approached Laurel’s dad where he was working in Eureka with interest in their property in Orick. Her dad had come home practically bouncing with excitement. The rest happened in such a whirlwind Laurel could hardly remember what happened first. Her parents spent several days at the bank in Brookings and, by early May, the bookstore was theirs and they were moving from their small cabin in Orick to an even smaller house in Crescent City.
But the months crept by and still things weren’t finalised with Mr Barnes. Until they were, money was tight, her dad worked long hours at the store, and Laurel was stuck in high school.
Her mom laid one hand over hers, warm and comforting. “Laurel, aside from the cost, you also need to learn to conquer new things. This will be so good for you. Next year you can take Advanced Placement classes and you could join a team or a club. Those all look really good on college applications.”
“I know. But—”
“I’m the mom,” she said with a grin that softened her firm tone. “And I say school.”
Laurel humphed and began tracing her finger along the grout between the tiles on the countertop.
The clock ticked loudly as her mom slid the pans into the oven and set the timer.
“Mom, do we have any of your canned peaches? I’m hungry.”
Her mom stared at Laurel. “You’re hungry?” Laurel traced swirls through the condensation on the soda can with her finger, avoiding her mom’s gaze. “I got hungry this afternoon. In last period.”
Her mom was trying not to make a big deal of this, but they both knew it was out of the ordinary. Laurel rarely felt hungry. Her parents had bugged Laurel about her weird eating habits for years. She ate at each meal to satisfy them, but it wasn’t something she felt she needed, much less enjoyed.
That’s why her mom finally agreed to keep the fridge stocked with Sprite. She railed against the as-yet-undocumented detriments of carbonation; but she couldn’t argue with the 140 calories per can. That was 140 more than water. At least this way she knew Laurel was getting more calories in her system, even if they were “empty”.
Her mom hurried to the pantry to grab a jar of peaches, probably afraid Laurel would change her mind. The unfamiliar twisting in Laurel’s stomach had begun during Spanish class, twenty minutes before the last bell. It had faded a little on the walk home, but it hadn’t gone away.
“Here you go,” she said, setting a bowl in front of Laurel. Then she turned her back, giving Laurel a modicum of privacy. Laurel looked down at the dish. Her mom had played it safe - one peach half and about half a cup of juice.
She ate the peach in small bites, staring at her mother’s back, waiting for her to turn round and peek. But her mom busied herself with the dishes and didn’t look once. Still, Laurel felt like she’d lost some imaginary battle so, when she was finished, she slid her backpack from the counter and tiptoed out of the kitchen before her mom could turn round.
The bell sounded in biology and Laurel hurried to stow the evil bio book as deep into her backpack as possible.
“How was day two?”
Laurel looked up to see David sitting backwards in the chair across her lab table. “It was OK.”
Laurel tried to smile, but her mouth didn’t obey. When she’d agreed to join David and his friends for lunch yesterday, it had seemed like a good idea. But the thought of meeting a whole group of complete strangers made her cringe. “Yeah,” she said, but she could tell her tone wasn’t convincing.
“Are you sure? Because you don’t have to.”
“No, I’m sure,” she said quickly. “Just let me get my stuff.” She packed her notebook and pens slowly. When she knocked one of her pens on to the floor, David retrieved it and handed it to her. She tugged on it, but he didn’t let go until she looked up at him. “They won’t bite,” he said seriously. “I promise.”
In the hallway David monopolised the conversation, rattling on until they entered the cafeteria. He waved to a group at the end of one of the long, thin tables. “Come on,” he said, putting a hand at the small of her back.
It felt a little weird to have someone touch her like that, but strangely comforting too. He guided her through the crowded aisle, then dropped his hand as soon as they got to the correct table.
“Hey, guys, this is Laurel.”
David pointed to each person and said a name but, five seconds later, Laurel couldn’t have repeated any of them. She sat in an empty seat beside David and tried to catch bits and pieces of the conversation around her. Absently, she pulled out a can of soda, a strawberry-and-spinach salad, and a peach half in juice her mother had packed that morning.
“A salad? It’s lasagne day and you’re having a salad?”
Laurel looked over at a girl with curly brown hair who had a full tray of school lunch in front of her.
David spoke up quickly, cutting off any response Laurel might have attempted. “Laurel’s vegan - she’s very strict.”
The girl glanced down at the small peach half with one raised eyebrow. “Looks more than vegan to me. Don’t vegans eat, like, bread?”
Laurel’s smile was tight. “Some.”
David rolled his eyes. “Leave her alone, Chelsea.”
“You look like you’re on some kind of mega-diet,” Chelsea said, ignoring David.
“Not really. This is just the kind of food I like.”
Laurel watched Chelsea’s eyes return to her salad and could sense more questions about to erupt. It was probably better to just spill than answer the twenty questions. “My digestive system doesn’t handle normal food very well,” she said. “Anything except plain fruits and vegetables makes me sick.”
“That’s weird. Who can live on just green stuff? Have you seen a doctor about this? Because—”
“Chelsea?” David’s voice was pointed but quiet. Laurel doubted anyone else at the table had even heard.
Chelsea’s grey eyes widened a little. “Oh, sorry.” She smiled, and when she did, it lit up her whole face. Laurel found herself smiling back. “It’s nice to meet you,” Chelsea said. Then she turned to her meal and didn’t even look at Laurel’s food again.
Lunch break was only twenty-eight minutes long -short by anyone’s standards - but today it seemed to drag by endlessly. The cafeteria was fairly small and voices bounced off the walls like ping-pong balls, assaulting Laurel’s ears. She felt like everyone was shouting at her all at once. Several of David’s friends attempted to draw her into their conversations, but Laurel couldn’t concentrate when the temperature in the room seemed to be rising by the minute. She couldn’t understand why no one else noticed.
She’d chosen a full T-shirt that morning instead of a tank because she’d felt so out of place the day before. But now the neckline seemed to grow even higher until she felt like she was wearing a turtleneck. A tight turtleneck. When the bell finally rang, she smiled and said goodbye but hurried out of the door before David could catch her.
She speed-walked to the bathroom, dropped her bag on the floor at the base of the windowsill, and pushed her face out into the open air. She breathed in the cool, salty air and fluttered the front of her shirt, trying to let the breeze touch as much of her body as possible. The faint nausea that had filled her stomach during lunch began to dissipate and she left the bathroom - with just enough time to run to her next class.
After school she walked home slowly. The sun and fresh air invigorated her and made the queasy feeling in her stomach disappear completely. Nonetheless, when she selected her clothing the next morning, she went back to a tank top.
At the beginning of bio, David sat down in the chair next to her. “Do you mind?” he asked.
Laurel shook her head. “The girl who usually sits here spends the whole class doodling hearts for someone named Steve. It’s a little distracting.”
David laughed. “Probably Steve Tanner. He’s super-popular.”
“Everyone goes for the obvious person, I guess.” She pulled out her textbook and found the page Mr James had written on the whiteboard.
“Want to have lunch with me again today? And my friends,” he added hastily.
Laurel hesitated. She’d figured he would ask, but she still hadn’t thought of a way to answer him without hurting his feelings. She liked him a lot. And she’d liked his friends - the ones she’d been able to hear over the din. “I don’t think so,” she began. “I—”
“Is it Chelsea? She didn’t mean to make you self-conscious about your lunch; she’s just really honest all the time. It’s actually kind of refreshing once you get used to it.”
“No, it’s not her - your friends were all really nice. But I can’t…I can’t stand that cafeteria. If I have to be indoors all day, I need to spend lunch outside. I guess with all the freedom of homeschooling for ten years I’m having trouble relinquishing it so quickly.”
“So everyone was OK?” David whispered as Mr James brought the class to order.
“Do you mind if they come eat outside with us, then?”
Laurel was quiet as she listened to the beginning of the lecture on phyla. “That would be nice,” she finally whispered back.
When the bell rang, David said, “I’ll meet you out there. I’ll just go tell the others so they can come if they want.”
By the time lunch was over, Laurel remembered at least half of the kids’ names and had managed to join in several of the conversations. Chelsea and David went with her to her next class and it felt natural to walk with them. When David made a joke about Mr James, Laurel’s laugh echoed through the halls. After only three days, the school was beginning to be more familiar; she didn’t feel as lost, and even the crush of people that had been so overwhelming on Monday wasn’t quite so bad today. For the first time since leaving Orick, Laurel felt like she belonged.
The next few weeks of school flew by faster than Laurel would ever have imagined after those first awkward days. She felt lucky that she’d met David; they hung out often at school, and she shared a class with Chelsea too. She never ate lunch alone, and felt like she had gotten to the point that she could call Chelsea and David her friends. And the classes were OK. It was different to be expected to learn at the same speed as everyone else, but Laurel was getting used to it.
She was also getting used to Crescent City. It was bigger than Orick, of course, but there was still plenty of open space and none of the buildings were more than about two storeys high. Tall pine and broad-leafed trees grew everywhere, even in front of the grocery store. The grass on the lawns was thick and green, and flowers blossomed on the vines that crawled over most of the buildings.
One Friday in September, Laurel ran right into David as she ducked through the doorway of her Spanish class, her last class of the day.
“Sorry,” David apologised, steadying her with a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s OK. I wasn’t paying attention.”
Laurel met David’s eyes. She smiled shyly, until she realised she was standing in his way.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Laurel said, moving away from the doorway.
“Um, actually, I was…I was looking for you.”
He seemed nervous. “OK. I just, have to…” She held up her book. “I need to put this in my locker.”
They walked to Laurel’s locker, where she stowed her Spanish book, then she looked expectantly at David.
“I was just wondering if you wanted to, maybe, hang out with me this afternoon?”
Her smile remained on her face, but she felt nerves settle into her stomach too. So far their friendship had been confined completely to school; Laurel suddenly realised she wasn’t entirely sure what David liked to do when he wasn’t eating lunch or taking notes. But the possibility of finding out held sudden appeal. “What are you doing?”
“There’re some woods behind my house - since you like to be outdoors, I thought we could go for a walk. There’s this really cool tree there that I thought you might like to see. Well, two trees, actually, but - you’ll understand when you see it. If you want to, I mean.”
Laurel smiled. “Sure.”
“Great.” He looked down the hall towards the back doors. “It’s easier if we go out the back way.”
Laurel followed David through the crowded hallway and out into the brisk September air. The sun was struggling to break through the fog, and the air was chilly and heavy with humidity. The wind blew in from the west, bringing the salty tang of the ocean with it. Laurel breathed deeply, enjoying the fall air as they entered a quiet subdivision about half a mile south of Laurel’s house. “So you live with your mom?” she asked.
“Yep. My dad split when I was nine. So my mom finished up school and came here.”
“What does she do?”
“She’s a pharmacist down at the Medicine Shoppe.”
“Oh.” Laurel laughed. “That’s ironic.”
“My mom’s a master naturopath.”
“It’s someone who basically makes all their medicine out of herbs. She even grows a bunch of her own stuff. I’ve never had any drugs, not even paracetamol.”
David stared. “You’re kidding me!”
“Nope. My mom makes stuff that we use instead.”
“My mom would freak. She thinks there’s a pill for everything.”
“My mom thinks doctors are out to kill you.”
“I think both our moms could learn something from each other.”
Laurel laughed. “Probably.”
“So your mom never goes to the doctor?”
“So were you, like, born at home?”
“I was adopted.”
“Oh yeah?” He was quiet for a few moments. “Do you know who your real parents are?”
Laurel snorted. “Nope.”
“Why is that funny?”
Laurel bit her lip. “Promise not to laugh?”
David raised his hand in mock seriousness. “I swear.”
“Someone put me in a basket on my parents’ doorstep.”
“No way! You’re totally messing with me.” Laurel raised an eyebrow at him. David gaped. “Honest?”
Laurel nodded. “I was a basket child. I wasn’t really a baby, though. I was, like, three and my mom says I was kicking and trying to get out when they answered the door.”
“So you were a kid? Could you talk?”
“Yeah. Mom said I had this funny accent that stuck around for about a year.”
“Huh. Didn’t you know where you came from?”
“Mom says I knew my name but nothing else. I didn’t know where I was from or what happened or anything.”
“That is the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“It made for a huge legal mess. After my parents decided they wanted to adopt me, they had a private investigator looking for my birth mother and all sorts of stuff about temporary custody and whatever. Took over two years before everything was final.”
“Did you live in a foster home or something?”
“No. The judge my parents worked with was pretty cooperative, so I got to live with them through the whole process. A social worker came out to see us every week, though, and my parents weren’t allowed to take me out of the state till I was seven.”
“Weird. Do you ever wonder where you came from?”
“I used to. But there are no answers, so it gets frustrating to think about after a while.”
“If you could find out who your real mom is, would you?”
“I don’t know,” she said, pushing her hands into her pockets. “Probably. But I like my life. I’m not sorry I ended up with my mom and dad.”
“That’s so cool.” David gestured towards a driveway. “This way.” He glanced up at the sky. “It looks like it’ll rain soon. Let’s drop our bags and hopefully we’ll have time to see the tree.”
“Is this your house? It’s pretty.” They were passing in front of a small white house with a bright red door; multicoloured zinnias filled a long bed that ran along the front of the house.
“Should be,” David said, turning up the front walk. “I spent two weeks this summer painting it.”
They dropped off their bags by the front door and walked into a neat and simply decorated kitchen. “Can I get you something?” David asked, walking into the kitchen and opening the fridge. He pulled out a can of Mountain Dew and grabbed a box of Twinkies from the cupboard.
Laurel forced herself not to wrinkle her nose at the Twinkles and looked around the kitchen instead. Her eyes found a fruit bowl. “Can I have one of those?” she asked, pointing to a fresh green pear.
“Yeah. Grab it and bring it along.” He held up a water bottle. “Water?”
She grinned. “Sure.”
They pocketed their snacks and David pointed towards the back door. “This way.” They walked to the back of the house and he opened the sliding door.
Laurel stepped out into a well-kept, fenced backyard. “Looks like a dead end to me.”
David laughed. “To the untrained eye, perhaps.”
He approached the breeze-block fence and, with a quick, leaping bound, pulled himself to the top and perched there.
“Come on,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’ll help you.”
Laurel looked up at him sceptically, but extended her hand. With surprisingly little effort, they hopped over the fence.
The tree line came right up to the fence, so with that one small jump they stood in a forest with damp, fallen leaves forming a thick carpet under their feet. The dense canopy hushed the sound of cars in the distance, and Laurel looked around appreciatively. “This is nice.”
David looked up with his hands on his hips. “It is, I guess. I’ve never been a big outdoors person, but I do find a lot of different plants in here that I can look at under my microscope.”
Laurel squinted up at him. “You have a microscope?” She snickered. “You really are a science geek.”
David laughed. “Yeah, but everyone thought Clark Kent was a nerd too, and look how that turned out.”
“You telling me you’re Superman?” Laurel asked.
“You just never know,” David said teasingly.
Laurel laughed and looked down, suddenly shy. When she looked up, David was staring at her. The glade seemed even quieter as their eyes met. She liked the way he looked at her, his eyes soft and probing. As if he could learn more about her just by studying her face.
After a long moment he smiled, a little embarrassed, and tilted his head towards a faint path. “The tree’s this way.”
He led her on a path that wound back and forth, seemingly without purpose. But after a few minutes, he pointed to a large tree just off the path.
“Wow,” Laurel said. “That is cool.” As David had said, it was actually two trees, a fir and an alder, that had sprouted close together. Their trunks had merged and twisted, resulting in what looked like a tree that grew pine needles on one side and broad leaves on the other.
“I discovered it when we moved here.”
“So where’s your dad now?” Laurel asked, sliding her back down a tree and settling into a soft pile of leaves. She pulled the pear out of her pocket.
David made a low laugh in his throat. “San Francisco. He’s a defence lawyer with a big firm.”
“Do you see him very often?” she asked.
David joined her on the ground, his knee resting gently against her thigh. She didn’t scoot away. “Every couple of months. He’s got a private jet and he flies into McNamara Field and takes me back with him for the weekend.”
“You don’t like him?”
David shrugged. “Well enough. But he’s the one who left us, and he never tried to get more time with me or anything, so I just don’t feel like a priority to him, you know?”
Laurel nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. We always have fun. It’s just - kind of weird sometimes.”
They sat in a peaceful silence for a few minutes, the tranquil clearing lulling them into a relaxed state. But then they both looked up as thunder rumbled across the sky.
“I better take you back. It’s gonna pour soon.”
Laurel stood and brushed herself off. “Thanks for bringing me here,” she said, gesturing at the tree. “This is pretty cool.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” David said. He avoided her eyes. “But…that wasn’t really the point.”
“Oh.” Laurel felt complimented but awkward.
“This way,” David said, his face colouring a little as he turned away.
They climbed back over the fence just as the first drops of rain began to fall. “Do you want to call your mom to come pick you up?” David asked once they were back in the kitchen.
“Nah, I’ll be fine.”
“But it’s raining. I should walk you.”
“No, it’s fine. Really, I like walking in the rain.”
David paused for a second, then blurted, “Then, can I call you? Maybe tomorrow?”
Laurel smiled. “Sure.”
But he didn’t move from the kitchen doorway. “Door’s that way, right?” she asked, as politely as possible.
“Yeah. It’s just, I can’t call you without your number.”
“Oh, sorry.” She pulled out a pen and scribbled her number down on a notebook beside the phone. “Can I give you mine?”
Laurel started to open her bag, but David stopped her. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Here.”
David held her hand and scrawled his number across her palm.
“This way you won’t lose it,” he said sheepishly.
“Great. Talk to you later.” She flashed him a warm grin before letting herself out into the heavy drizzle.
Once she was down the street just far enough that the house was out of sight, Laurel pushed back the hood of her jacket and lifted her face to the sky. She breathed deeply as the rain sprinkled on her cheeks and trickled down her neck. She started to stretch her arms out, then remembered the phone number. She buried her hands in her pockets and picked up her pace, smiling as the rain continued to fall softly on her head.
The phone was ringing as Laurel walked into her house. Her mom didn’t seem to be home, so Laurel ran the last few steps to catch the call before the machine picked up. “Hello?” she said breathlessly.
“Oh, hey, you’re home. I was just gonna leave a message.”
“Yeah. Hi. Sorry to call so soon,” David said, “but I was thinking that we have that bio test next week and I thought maybe you’d like to come over tomorrow and study with me.”
“Seriously?” Laurel said. “That would be awesome! I am so stressed about that test. I feel like I only know about half of the stuff.”
“Great.” He paused. “Not great that you’re stressing over it, but great that - anyway.”
Laurel grinned at his awkwardness. “What time?”
“Just whenever. I’m not doing anything tomorrow except chores for my mom.”
“OK. I’ll call you.”
“Great. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Laurel said goodbye and hung up. She smiled as she bounded up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Saturday morning, Laurel’s eyes fluttered open at sunrise. She didn’t mind - she was a morning person, always had been. She usually woke about an hour before her parents and it gave her a chance to take a walk by herself and enjoy the sun on her back and the wind on her cheeks before she had to go spend hours indoors at school.
After pulling on a sundress, she grabbed her mom’s old guitar from its case by the back door before slipping silently out to enjoy the crisp quiet of the early morning. Late September had chased away the bright, clear mornings and brought instead the fog that rolled off the ocean and lingered over the town until early afternoon. She walked along a short path that snaked through her backyard. Despite the small size of the house, the lot was fairly large and Laurel’s parents had talked of possibly adding on someday. The yard had several trees that shaded the house, and Laurel had spent almost a month helping her mom plant bunches of flowers and vines all along the exterior walls.
Their house was one in a line of homes, so they had neighbours on both sides but, like many of the homes in Crescent City, their backyard ran into undeveloped forest. Laurel usually took her walks into the twisting paths of the small glen and to the creek that ran through the middle of it, parallel to the line of houses.
Today she wandered down to the creek and sat on the bank. She pushed her feet into the chilly water that was clear and cool in the mornings before the water bugs and gnats ventured out and dotted the surface, looking for bits of food.
Laurel set her guitar on her knee and began to strum a few random chords, picking out a bit of a melody after a while. It was nice to fill the space around her with music. She’d started playing three years ago when she’d found her mom’s old guitar in the attic. It was in dire need of new strings and some major tuning, but Laurel convinced her mom to get it fixed up. Her mom had told her the guitar was hers now, but Laurel still liked to think of it as her mom’s; it made it seem more romantic. Like an old heirloom.
An insect landed on her shoulder and began to walk down her back. Laurel swatted at it and her fingers touched something. She stretched her arm back a little further and felt for it again. It was still there: a round bump, just barely big enough to feel under her skin. She craned her neck, but couldn’t see anything past her shoulder. She touched it again, trying to figure out what it was. Finally she stood, frustrated, and headed back to the house in search of a mirror.
After locking the bathroom door, Laurel sat on the vanity, twisting until she could see her back in the mirror. She pulled the top of her sundress down and searched for the bump. She finally spotted it right between her shoulder blades - a tiny, raised circle that blended in with the skin around it. It was barely noticeable, but definitely there. She poked it tentatively - it didn’t hurt, but poking it did provoke a sort of tingling feeling. It looked like a zit. That’s comforting, Laurel thought wryly. In a completely non-comforting way.
Laurel heard her mother’s soft steps creak down the hall and poked her head round the bathroom door “Mom?”
“Kitchen,” her mom called with a yawn.
Laurel followed her voice. “I have a bump on my back. Could you look at it?” she asked, turning round.
Her mom pushed on it softly a few times. “Just a zit,” she concluded.
“That’s what I figured,” Laurel said, letting the top of her dress snap back up.
“You don’t really get zits.” She hesitated. “Have you started…you know?”
Laurel shook her head quickly. “Just a one-off” Her voice was flat and her smile was sharp. “All part of puberty, like you always say.” She turned and fled before her mother could ask any more questions.
Back in her room she sat on her bed, fingering the small bump. It made her feel strangely normal to get her first zit; like a rite of passage. She hadn’t experienced puberty quite like the textbooks described it. She never got zits and, although her chest and hips had developed the way they were supposed to — a little early, actually — at fifteen-and-a-half she still hadn’t started her period.
Her mom always shrugged it off, saying that because they had no idea what her biological mother’s medical history was, they couldn’t be certain it wasn’t a perfectly normal family trait. But she could tell her mom was starting to get worried.
Laurel dressed in her usual tank top and jeans and started to pull her hair into a ponytail. Then she thought of the irritated blemishes she occasionally saw dotting other girls’ backs in the locker room and left her hair down. Just in case the bump developed into something ugly later on.
Especially at David’s house. That would suck.
Laurel grabbed an apple as she walked out of the door and called goodbye to her mom. She was almost at David’s house when she looked up and saw Chelsea jogging the other way. Laurel waved and called to her.
“Hey!” Chelsea said, smiling as her curls blew lightly around her face.
“Hi,” Laurel said with a smile. “I didn’t know you were a runner.”
“Cross-country. Usually I practise with the team, but on Saturdays we’re on our own. What are you doing?”
“I’m headed to David’s,” Laurel said. “We’re going to study.”
Chelsea laughed. “Well, welcome to the David Lawson fan club. I’m already president, but you can be treasurer.”
“It’s not like that,” Laurel said, not completely sure she was telling the truth. “We’re just going to study. I have a bio test on Monday that I’m totally going to blow without some serious intervention.”
“He’s just round the corner. I’ll walk you there.”
They rounded the corner and heard the mower. David didn’t see them as they walked up and they both stood there, watching.
He was pushing a lawnmower through the thick grass, wearing only a pair of jeans and old tennis shoes. His chest and arms were long and wiry, but corded with lean muscle - his skin was tanned from the sun and glistened with a light sheen of sweat as he moved almost gracefully in the gentle morning sunlight.
Laurel couldn’t help but stare.
She’d seen guys running around without shirts countless times, but somehow this was different. She watched his arms flex as he reached a particularly thick patch of grass and had to force the mower to keep going. Her chest felt a little tight.
“I think I’ve died and gone to heaven,” Chelsea said, not bothering to hide the appreciation in her eyes.
As if feeling them watching, David suddenly looked up and met Laurel’s eyes. She dropped her chin and studied her feet.
Chelsea didn’t even blink.
By the time Laurel looked up again, David was pulling on a shirt. “Hey, guys. You’re up early.”
“Is it early still?” Laurel asked. It was almost nine o’clock, after all. “Oh,” she said, embarrassed, “I forgot to call.”
David shrugged with a grin. “That’s OK.” He gestured at the lawnmower. “I’m up.”
“Well, I gotta run,” Chelsea said, her breathlessness back rather suddenly. “Literally.” She turned so only Laurel could see her face and mouthed, “Wow!” before waving at them both and sprinting down the street.
David chuckled and shook his head as he watched her go. Then he turned to Laurel and pointed towards his house. “Shall we? Biology waits for no man.”
After the tests were handed in on Monday, David turned to Laurel. “So, how bad was it, really?”
Laurel grinned. “Fine, it wasn’t that bad. But only because of your help.” They’d studied for about three hours on Saturday and had talked for another hour on Sunday night. Granted, the phone conversation had nothing to do with biology, but perhaps she had learned something by osmosis. Osmosis over the phone. Right.
He hesitated for just a second before saying, “We could make it a regular thing. Studying together, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Laurel said, liking the idea of more quiet “study” sessions with him. “And next time you could come to my house,” she added.
It was raining by the time biology let out that day, so the group gathered under a small pavilion instead. Almost no one ate there because there were no picnic tables or paving stones underneath, but Laurel liked the bumpy patch of grass that never seemed to dry completely - even with the roof overhead.
When it rained, most of the group stayed inside, but today David and Chelsea joined her, as well as a guy named Ryan. David and Ryan threw bits of bread at each other and Chelsea commentated - critiquing their aim, throwing form and inability to keep from hitting spectators.
“OK, that one was on purpose,” Chelsea said, picking up a piece of crust that had hit her square in the chest and flicking it back over to the guys.
“Nah, it was an accident,” Ryan said. “You’re the one who told me I couldn’t hit anything I aimed for.”
“Then maybe you should aim for me so I can be assured of not being assaulted,” she shot back. She sighed and turned back to Laurel. “I was not meant to live in northern California,” she said, pushing her hair out of her face. “During the summer my hair does fine, but introduce a little rain and bam! It turns into this.” Chelsea had long brown hair with a tinge of auburn that fell in ringlets down her back. Soft, silky ringlets on sunny days, and jumping, coarse ringlets that bounced out of control around her face when the air was cold and humid -which was about half the time. She had light grey eyes that reminded Laurel of the ocean when the sun was just rising, and the waves had an endless quality to them in the murky half-darkness.
“I think it’s pretty,” Laurel said.
“That’s because it’s not yours. I have to use special shampoos and conditioners just to be able to brush through it every day.” She looked over at Laurel and touched her straight, smooth hair for a second. “Yours feels nice; what do you use?”
“Oh, just whatever.”
“Hmm.” Chelsea touched her hair one more time. “Do you use a leave-in conditioner? That usually works the best with mine.”
Laurel took a breath and let it out noisily. “Actually…I don’t put anything on it. Any kind of conditioner makes my hair really slick and oily-feeling. And if I use shampoo, it makes my hair really, really dry - even the moisturising kind.”
“So you just don’t wash it?” The idea was apparently beyond foreign to Chelsea.
“I rinse it really well. I mean, it’s clean and everything.”
“But no shampoo at all?”
Laurel shook her head and waited for a sceptical comment, but Chelsea just muttered, “Lucky,” and turned back to her lunch.
That night Laurel examined her hair closely. Did she need to wash it? But it looked and felt the same as it always did. She turned her back to the mirror and poked and prodded the bump. It had been a tiny thing on Saturday morning, but over the weekend it had grown pretty big. “Hell of a first zit,” Laurel grumbled to her reflection.
The next morning, Laurel woke up to a dull tingling between her shoulder blades. Trying not to panic, she hurried into the bathroom and craned her neck to look at her back in the mirror.
The bump was bigger than a quarter!
This was no zit. She touched it carefully, and a strange tingling sensation lingered everywhere her fingers brushed. In a panic she clutched her nightgown to her chest and ran down the hall to her parents’ room. She had just raised her hand to knock when she forced herself to stop and take a few breaths.
Laurel looked down at herself and suddenly felt very foolish. What was she thinking? She was standing in the hallway in little more than her underwear. Mortified, she stepped away from her parents’ door and crept back to the bathroom, shutting the door as quickly and quietly as she could. She turned her back to the mirror again and studied the lump. She turned to view it from a few different angles until she convinced herself it wasn’t nearly as big as she’d thought.
Laurel had been raised on the idea that the human body knew how to take care of itself. Most things - if left alone - would clear up by themselves. Both her parents lived that way. They never went to the doctor, not even for antibiotics.
“It’s just a humongous zit. It will go away on its own,” Laurel told her reflection, her tone sounding exactly like her mother’s.
She dug into her mother’s drawer and found a tub of the salve her mom made every year. It had rosemary, lavender, tea-tree oil, and who knew what else in it, and her mom put it on everything.
It couldn’t hurt.
Laurel scooped up a fingerful of the sweet-smelling salve and began rubbing it on her back. Between the tingle of her hands irritating the bump and the burn of the tea-tree oil, Laurel’s back was on fire as she pulled her nightgown over her head and, with her shoulders pressed to the wall, scooted to her room.
She chose a loose-fitting baseball-style T-shirt with cap sleeves and a full back for today. Most of her tanks would probably conceal the bump, but Laurel didn’t want to take any chances. This thing couldn’t get much bigger without becoming all gross, and when it did, Laurel would rather have it hidden beneath a shirt. It tingled every time anything brushed against it - her long hair, the T-shirt as she pulled it over her head, and, of course, every time she touched it, trying to remind herself it was real. By the time she headed downstairs, she was convinced every nerve in her body was connected to the bump.
By the time Thursday rolled around, Laurel could no longer deny that whatever this thing was on her back, it wasn’t a zit. Not only had it continued growing the last two days, it seemed to be growing faster. That morning it was the size of a golf ball.
Laurel had come down to breakfast determined to tell her parents about the weird bump. She’d even taken a breath and opened her mouth to just blurt it out.
But at the last second she’d wimped out and simply asked her dad to pass the cantaloupe.
Between the T-shirts she’d been wearing the last few days and keeping her long hair loose, no one had noticed the bump yet, but it was only a matter of time — especially if it kept getting bigger. If, Laurel repeated to herself, if it gets bigger. Maybe Mom’s stuff did the trick.
She’d been putting salve on it for three days straight now, but it didn’t seem to be doing much. But then, something that grew this big and fast couldn’t be something that a little tea-tree oil could fix, could it? Maybe it was a tumour. Laurel was sure she’d read news stories about people having spinal tumours. Laurel took in a sharp breath. A tumour made too much sense.
“Hello? Are you even listening to me?” Chelsea’s voice cut through Laurel’s thoughts and she turned her face to her friend.
Chelsea just laughed. “I didn’t think so.” Then, quieter, “Are you OK? You were really spaced.”
Laurel looked up and for a second couldn’t remember which class she was headed to. “I’m fine,” she muttered irritably. “Just thinking.”
Chelsea scrutinised her face for a few seconds before one sceptical eyebrow poked up. “OK.”
David fell into step beside them, and when Chelsea peeled off to head to her own class Laurel tried to get ahead of him. He reached out and pulled her back. “Where’s the fire, Laury? It’s still three minutes to the bell.”
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped before she could stop herself.
David’s mouth bounced shut and he didn’t say anything else as the flow of people slid around them.
Laurel searched for words of apology, but what was she supposed to say? Sorry, David, I’m just on edge because I might have a tumour. Instead she blurted, “I don’t like nicknames.”
David had already pasted on his brave smile. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Did you…” His voice trailed away and he seemed to change his mind. “Come on. I’ll walk you to class.” She felt awkward walking beside him now. She turned to him when they reached her class and waved. “See ya.”
She turned back round.
“What are you doing on Saturday?”
She hesitated. She’d hoped that she and David could do something again. And until this morning, she’d been trying to come up with a casual way to ask. But maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.
“I was thinking a bunch of us could get together and have a picnic and maybe a bonfire. I know this great spot on the beach. Chelsea said she’d come, and Ryan and Molly and Joe. And a couple other people said maybe.”
Food, sand and a smoky fire. None of those sounded fun.
“It’s a little cold, so we can’t really swim, but…you know. Someone usually gets pushed in. It’s fun.”
Laurel’s fake smile melted away. She hated the feeling of salt water on her skin. Even after a shower she could still feel it - as if the salt had absorbed into her pores. The last time she’d gone swimming in the ocean, years ago, she’d been sluggish and tired for days afterwards. And there would be no way of hiding her bump - or whatever it was - in a bathing suit, either.
She shuddered as she wondered how big it would be in two days! She couldn’t go, even if she wanted to. “David, I—” She hated turning him down. “I can’t.”
“Why not?” David asked.
She could say she had to work at the bookstore -until the last couple of weeks she’d spent pretty much every Saturday down there helping her dad - but she couldn’t bring herself to lie. Not to David. “I just can’t,” she mumbled, and ducked through the doorway without saying goodbye.
By Friday morning the bump was the size of a softball. It was definitely a tumour. Laurel didn’t even bother to go in the bathroom to look. She could feel it.
No T-shirt was going to hide this.
Laurel had to dig into the back of her closet to find a fluffy blouse that would at least camouflage the lump. She waited in her room till it was time to go to school, then raced downstairs and out of the door with only a yell of “good morning” and “goodbye” to her parents.
The rest of the day dragged by interminably. The bump tingled all the time now, not just when she touched it. It was all she could think about, like a persistent buzz in her head. She didn’t talk to anyone at lunchtime and felt bad about that, but she couldn’t concentrate on anything while her back was tingling so much.
By the time her last class finally ended, she had given the wrong answer four times when she was called on. The questions had got progressively easier - as if Señora Martinez were trying to give her a chance to redeem herself - but her teacher may as well have been speaking Swahili. As soon as the bell sounded, Laurel was out of her seat and heading to the door ahead of everyone else. And definitely before Señora Martinez could corner her about her abysmal performance.
She saw David and Chelsea chatting by Chelsea’s locker, so she headed the other way and hurried towards the back doors, hoping neither of them would turn and recognise her from behind. As soon as she’d escaped the school, she headed across the football field, not sure where to go in the still-unfamiliar town. As she walked, she couldn’t shake her growing fear. What if it’s cancer? Cancer doesn’t just go away. Maybe I should tell Mom.
“Monday,” Laurel whispered under her breath as the cold air whipped at her hair. “If it’s not gone by Monday, I’ll tell my parents.”
She climbed the bleachers, her feet pounding on each metal step, until she reached the top. She stood against the railing, looking out over the tops of the trees at the western skyline. Being so far above her surroundings made her feel separate and apart. It was fitting.
Her head shot up as she heard footsteps behind her. She turned to see David’s rather embarrassed face. “Hey,” he said.
Laurel said nothing as relief and annoyance warred in her mind. Relief was winning.
He waved his hand at the bench she was standing on. “Can I sit?”
Laurel stood still for a moment, then sat on the bench and patted the spot beside her with a slight smile.
David sat down gingerly beside her as if not trusting her invitation. “I didn’t really mean to follow you,” he said as he leaned forwards with his elbows on his knees. “I was going to wait for you at the bottom, but…” He shrugged. “What can I say? I’m impatient.”
Laurel said nothing.
They sat in silence for a long time. “Are you OK?” David asked, his voice unnaturally loud as it bounced off the empty metal benches.
Laurel felt tears burn her eyes, but forced herself to blink them back. “I’ll be fine.”
“You’ve just been so quiet all week.”
“Did…did I do something?”
Laurel’s head lifted sharply. “You? No, David. You…you’re great.” Guilt settled over her. She forced a smile. “I just had an off day, that’s all. Give me the weekend to get over it. I’ll feel better on Monday. I promise.”
David nodded and the silence returned, heavy and awkward. Then he cleared his throat. “Can I walk you home?”
She shook her head. “I’m going to stay here awhile. I’ll be all right,” she added.
“But…” He didn’t continue. He just nodded, then stood and started to walk away. Then he turned. “If you need anything, you know my number, right?”
Laurel nodded. She had it memorised.
“OK.” He shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I’m leaving now.”
Just before he passed out of sight, Laurel called to him. “David?”
But when he turned to her, his face so frank and open, she lost her nerve. “Have fun tomorrow,” she said lamely.
His face fell a little, but he nodded and continued walking away.
That night Laurel sat on the vanity in her bathroom staring at her back. Tears slid down her cheeks as she again smeared salve all over the lump. It hadn’t done anything before, and logic told her it wouldn’t do anything this time - but she had to try something.
Saturday morning dawned cool, with only a light mist that the sun would probably burn off by noon. Laurel predicted a hundred per cent chance of everyone at the bonfire diving or being pushed into the chilly Pacific water, and was doubly grateful she had bowed out. She lay in bed for several minutes watching the sunrise with its blended hues of pink, orange and a soft, hazy blue. Most people enjoyed the beauty of a sunset on a regular basis but, to Laurel, it was sunrise that was truly breathtaking. She stretched and sat up, still facing the window. She thought of the percentage of people in her small town who were sleeping through this incredible sight. Her father, for one. He was an infamous sleeper and rarely rose before noon on Saturday - or Sleepday, as he called it.
She smiled at that thought, but reality trickled in all too soon. Her fingers walked over her shoulder and her eyes flew open wide. She bit off a shriek as her other hand joined the first, trying to confirm what she was feeling.
The bump was gone.
But something else had replaced it. Something long and cool.
And much bigger than the bump had been.
Cursing herself for not being one of those girls with a mirror in her room, Laurel craned her neck, trying to see over her shoulder, but she could only see rounded edges of something white. She threw back the thin bedsheet and ran to her door. The knob turned silently and Laurel opened the door a tiny crack. She could hear her father snoring, but sometimes her mother got up early and she was very quiet. Laurel let her door swing open - consciously grateful, for the first time in her life, for well-oiled hinges - and slid down the hall towards the bathroom with her back to the wall. As if that was going to help.
Her hands were unsteady as she pushed the bathroom door closed and fumbled with the lock. Only when she heard the bolt click into place did she let herself breathe again. She leaned her head against the rough, unfinished wood and forced her breathing to slow. Her fingers found the light switch and she flipped it on. Taking a deep breath, she blinked away the dark spots and stepped towards the mirror.
She didn’t even have to turn to see the new development. Long, bluish-white forms rose over both shoulders. For a moment Laurel was mesmerised, staring at the pale things with wide eyes. They were terrifyingly beautiful - almost too beautiful for words.
She turned slowly so she could see them better. Petal-like strips sprouted from where the bump had been, making a gently curved four-pointed star on her back. The longest petals - fanning out over each shoulder and peeking around her waist - were more than a foot long and as wide as her hand. Smaller petals - about twenty centimetres long - spiralled around the centre, filling in the leftover space. There were even a few small green leaves where the enormous flower connected to her skin.
All of the petals were tinged a dark blue at the centre that faded to the softest sky blue in the middle and white at the ends. The edges were ruffled and looked eerily like the African violets her mother painstakingly grew in their kitchen. There must have been twenty of the soft, petal-like strips. Maybe more.
Laurel turned her front to the mirror again, her eyes on the hovering petals that floated beside her head. They looked almost like wings.
A loud rap on the door snapped Laurel out of her trance. “Done yet?” her mother asked sleepily. Laurel’s fingernails bit into her palm as she stared in horror at the huge white things. They were pretty, sure, but who in the world grew an enormous flower out of their back? This was ten - no - a hundred times worse than the bump. How was she going to hide it?
Maybe the petals would just pluck off. She grabbed one of the oblong strips and yanked on it. Pain radiated down her spine and she had to bite her cheek hard to stifle a scream. But she couldn’t stop the whimper that escaped from between her teeth.
Her mother knocked again. “Laurel, are you OK?”
Laurel took several deep breaths as the pain faded to a dull throb and she regained her power of speech. “I’m fine,” she said, her voice shaking a little. “Just a minute.” Her eyes swept the room looking for something useful. The thin, strappy nightgown she was wearing would be no help at all. She grabbed her oversized towel and threw it over her shoulders, pulling it close around her. After a quick check in the mirror to make sure there were no gigantic petals in sight, Laurel opened the door and forced a smile at her mother. “Sorry I took so long.”
Her mother blinked. “Did you take a shower? I didn’t hear the water running.”
“It was short.” Laurel hesitated. “And I didn’t get my hair wet,” she added.
But her mother wasn’t paying much attention. “Come on down when you’re dressed and I’ll make you some breakfast,” she said with a yawn. “It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day.”
Laurel skirted past her mother into the safety of her own room. She didn’t have a lock on her door, but she wedged a chair under the doorknob like she’d seen people do in movies. She looked at the set-up dubiously. It didn’t look like it would keep much out, but it was the best she could do.
She let the towel fall from her shoulders and examined the crushed petals. They were a tad rumpled, but they didn’t hurt. She pulled one long piece over her shoulder and examined it. The huge bump was one thing, but what was she going to do about this?
She sniffed at the white thing, paused, and sniffed again. It smelled like a fruit blossom but stronger. A lot stronger. The intoxicating scent was starting to fill the room. At least the huge thing didn’t stink. She’d have to tell her mom she got a new perfume or something. Laurel inhaled again and wished she could find something that smelled this good at the perfume counter.
As the enormity of the situation crashed over Laurel, the room seemed to spin beneath her. Her chest felt tight as she tried to consider what to do.
The most important thing first; she had to hide it.
Laurel opened her closet and stood in front of it, looking for something to help her hide an enormous flower growing out of her back, but that hadn’t exactly been her first priority when she’d gone clothes shopping in August. Laurel groaned at the closet full of light, thin blouses and sundresses. Hardly made for hiding anything.
She sifted through her clothes and grabbed a few tops. After checking to make sure the coast was clear, Laurel ran to the bathroom, swearing she would get to a store today and buy a mirror for her room. The door closed a little harder than she intended but, though she stood next to it with her ear pressed against the cool wood for several seconds, she didn’t hear any response from her mother.
The first top wouldn’t even fit over the enormous flower thing. She stared at it in the mirror. There had to be another way.
She grabbed as many of the long, white petals as she could and tried wrapping them around her shoulders. That didn’t work very well. Besides, she didn’t really want to wear sleeves for the rest of her life - however long that might be.
She pulled them around under her arms and wrapped them around her waist instead. That worked better. Much better. She grabbed a long pink silk scarf off one of the hangers and wrapped it around her waist, securing the petals to her skin. Then she buttoned her shorts up over part of the scarf. It still didn’t hurt, but she felt confined and smothered.
Still, it was better than nothing. She picked a lightweight, peasant-style blouse and threw it over the whole thing. Then, with trepidation, she turned to look in the mirror.
Pretty impressive, if she did say so herself. The fabric of the blouse was bunchy anyway, so you couldn’t tell anything was underneath. Even from the side the bulge down her back was only barely noticeable and, if she brushed her hair down over it, no one would be able to tell. One small problem solved.
A hundred big ones left.
This was way more than some strange manifestation of puberty. Mood swings, disfiguring acne, even periods that went on for months were at least semi-normal. But growing oversized flower petals out of your back from a zit the size of a softball? This was something else entirely.
But what? This was the kind of stuff you saw in cheap horror movies. Even if she did decide to tell someone, who would believe her? Never, even in her worst nightmares, had she imagined something like this could happen to her.
This was going to ruin everything. Her life, her future. It was like everything was washed away in an instant.
The bathroom suddenly felt too warm. Too small, too dark, too…too everything. Desperate to get away from the house, Laurel scooted through the kitchen, grabbed a can of soda and opened the back door.
“Going for a walk?”
“Yeah, Mom,” she said without turning round. “Have fun.”
Laurel made a noncommittal sound under her breath.
She stomped down the path towards the woods, paying no attention to the dew-speckled greenery around her. There was still a touch of fog on the western horizon where it rolled off the ocean, but the peak of the sky was blue and clear and the sun was making its way steadily to the top of the sky. It would indeed be a beautiful day. Figures. She felt like Mother Nature was mocking her. Her life was unravelling, yet everything around her was beautiful, as if to spite her.
She ducked behind a large cluster of trees, out of sight of both the road and her house; it wasn’t enough, though. She kept going.
After a few more minutes, she stopped and listened for the sound of anyone - or anything - around her. Once she felt safe, she pushed the back of her shirt up and untied the confining scarf. A sigh escaped her lips as the petals whipped back into their original position on her back. It felt like being released from a tiny, cramped box.
A beam of sunlight shone down from a break in the trees above, making her silhouette stretch out on the grass in front of her. The outline of her shadow looked like an enormous butterfly with gauzy wings. And, in the same strange way balloons cast shadows, the blackness had just a tinge of blue in it. She tried to make the wing-things move, but although she could feel them — feel every inch of them now, soaking in the rays of sunlight — she had no control over them. Something so life-shattering shouldn’t be this beautiful.
She stared at the image on the ground for a long time, wondering what to do. Should she tell her parents? She had promised herself she’d tell them Monday if the bump wasn’t gone.
Well, it was gone.
Pulling one of the long strips over her shoulder, Laurel ran her fingers down it. It was so soft. And it didn’t hurt. Maybe it will just go away, she thought optimistically. That was what her mom always said. Eventually most things go away on their own. Maybe…maybe it would be OK.
OK? The words seemed to fill her head, reverberating in her skull. I have a humongous flower growing out of my spine. How is this supposed to be OK!
As her emotions tumbled around like a hurricane, her thoughts suddenly centred on David. Maybe David could help her make sense of this. There had to be a scientific explanation for this. He had a microscope - a really good one, from what he said. Maybe he could look at a piece of this weird flower. He might be able to tell her what it was. And even if he told her he had no idea, she’d be no worse off than she was now.
She wrapped her scarf around the flower again and hurried back to the house, almost running into her dad as he lumbered into the kitchen.
“Dad!” she said in surprise, her nerves already at breaking point stretched even further.
He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “Morning, Beautiful.” He laid an arm across her shoulders, and Laurel sucked in a nervous breath and hoped he couldn’t feel the petals through her shirt.
But then, her father rarely noticed anything before his second cup of coffee.
“Why are you up?” she asked, a slight quaver in her voice.
He groaned. “I have to go open the store. Maddie needed the day off.”
“Sure,” Laurel said absently, trying not to see this change in the normal routine as some kind of bad omen.
He started to pull his arm away, then stopped and sniffed the air by her shoulder. Laurel froze. “You smell nice. You should wear that perfume more often.”
Laurel nodded, praying her eyes weren’t popping out of her head, and unwound herself from her dad’s embrace. She hurried to pick up the cordless phone and then headed up the stairs.
In her room, she stared at the phone for a long time before her fingers managed to dial David’s number. He picked up after the first ring. “Hello?”
“Hey,” she said quickly, forcing herself not to hang up.
“Laurel. Hey! What’s up?”
The seconds stretched into silence.
“You did call me.”
“Can I come over?” she blurted.
“Um, sure. When?”
A few minutes later, Laurel had her chair wedged under the doorknob again. She lifted the front of her shirt and pulled the end of one of the long white and blue strips free from the pink scarf. It looked so harmless, sitting there in her hand. She could almost forget it was attached to her back. She picked up her mother’s nail scissors and studied the end of the petal. She probably didn’t need too big a piece. She eyed it again and selected a small curve at the ruffled tip.
She braced herself as she moved the shiny scissors into position. She wanted to close her eyes, but she was afraid she’d do even more damage that way. She counted silently. One, two, three!…I meant to count to five. After mentally calling herself a wimp, she positioned the scissors again. One, two, three, four, five! She pressed down and the scissors cut cleanly, flipping a small piece of white on to her bedspread. Laurel gasped and hopped up and down for a few seconds until the sting eased and she looked down at the cut edge. It wasn’t bleeding, but it oozed a little bit of clear liquid. Laurel blotted the liquid away with a towel before smoothing the end back into the scarf Then she wrapped the small white piece in a tissue and tucked it carefully into her pocket.
She bounced down the stairs trying to look as casual as possible. As she breezed by her mom and dad sitting at the table eating breakfast she said, “I’m going to David’s.”
“Hold it,” her dad said.
Laurel stopped walking, but she didn’t turn round.
“How about, ‘May I go to David’s?’”
Laurel turned with a forced smile on her face. “May I go to David’s?”
Her father’s eyes didn’t even leave the paper as he lifted his coffee to his mouth. “Sure. Have fun.”
Laurel made her feet walk at a normal pace to the door, but as soon as it shut behind her, she ran to her bike and kicked off on her way. It was only a few blocks to David’s, and soon Laurel was leaning her bike up against his garage. She stood on his doormat, focused on the bright red front door, and rang the doorbell before she could convince herself to turn tail and run home. She held her breath as she heard footsteps and the door opened.
It was David’s mother. Laurel tried to hide the surprise on her face - after all, it was Saturday, and Laurel should have expected her to be home. But it was only the second time Laurel had ever met her. She was wearing a cute red tank top and jeans and her long, almost-black hair was loose and tumbling down her back in waves. She was the most unmotherly mom Laurel had ever met. In a good way.
“Laurel, how nice to see you.”
“Hi,” Laurel said nervously, then just stood there.
Luckily David came round the corner. “Hey,” he said with a broad smile. “Come on back.” He gestured Laurel down the hall. “Laurel needs a little help with some biology homework,” he explained to his mother. “We’ll just be in my room.”
David’s mom smiled at them both. “Do you need anything? A snack or something?”
He shook his head. “Just some quiet. It’s a pretty intense assignment.”
“I’ll leave you alone, then.”
The forest-green door to David’s bedroom stood ajar; with a sweep of his arm, David ushered Laurel in. He bent down to pull out his biology binder and, after glancing down the hall to make sure his mom wasn’t near, swung the door closed.
Laurel stared at the closed door. She’d been in his bedroom before, but he’d never closed the door. She noticed for the first time that his doorknob didn’t have a lock. “Your mom wouldn’t, like, listen at the door, would she?” Laurel asked, feeling silly even as the question escaped her mouth.
David snorted. “Never. I’ve earned a lot of privacy by not asking why a lot of my mom’s dates don’t leave until morning. I stay out of Mom’s personal business; she stays out of mine.”
Laurel laughed, a bit of her nervousness melting away now that she was actually here.
David pointed her to the bed and pulled up a chair for himself. “So?” he said after a few seconds.
It was now or never. “Actually, I was hoping you might look at something under your microscope for me.”
Confusion flashed across David’s face. “My microscope?”
“You said you had a really good one.”
He recovered quickly. “Uh, OK. Yeah, sure.”
Laurel dug in her pocket and pulled out the tissue. “Could you tell me what this is?”
David took the tissue, unwrapped it carefully and looked down at the small white fragment. “It looks like a piece of a flower petal.”
Laurel forced herself not to roll her eyes. “Could you look at it under your microscope?”
“Sure.” He turned to a long table covered with various pieces of equipment - a few of which Laurel recognised from the bio lab. A very few. He pulled a grey cover off a shiny black microscope and grabbed a slide from a box of the small glass panes separated by sheets of thin tissue paper. “Can I cut this?” he asked, looking over at her.
Laurel shuddered, remembering cutting it off herself less than half an hour earlier, and nodded. “It’s all yours.”
David cut a tiny piece and laid it on a slide, added a yellow solution, and dropped a cover slip over the top. He clipped the slide under the lens and fiddled with the dials as he peered into the eyepiece. The minutes passed slowly as he adjusted more dials and moved the slide around, looking at it from different angles. Finally he leaned back. “All I can really tell you for certain is that it’s a piece of a plant and the cells are very active, which means it’s growing. Flowering, I assume from the colour.”
“A piece of a plant? Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure,” he said, looking back through the eyepiece.
“It’s not part of an…animal?”
“Uh-uh. No way.”
“How can you tell?”
He flipped through a few pre-prepared and labelled slides in another box. He selected one with a pinkish blob on it and went back through the process of focusing the microscope. “Come here,” he said, standing and gesturing to his chair.
She took his place and leaned tentatively forward over the microscope.
“It’s not going to bite you,” he said with laugh. “Lean in close.”
She did and opened her eyes to a pink world shot through with maroon lines and dots. “What am I supposed to be seeing?”
“I want you to look at the cells. They look pretty much like the pictures in our bio book. See how they’re round or irregularly shaped? They look like blobs all connected together.”
He slid the microscope back in front of him and switched in the yellowed slide he had prepared a few minutes before. After turning more dials, he scooted the microscope back to her. “Now look at this one.”
Laurel put her forehead back down towards the eyepiece, far more afraid of this slide than the other. She hoped David wouldn’t notice her hands shaking.
“Look at the cells now. They’re all pretty square and very uniform. Plant cells are orderly, not like animal cells. And they have thick cell walls that are square like the ones you see here. That’s not to say you never see squarish animal cells, but they wouldn’t be nearly this uniform, and the cell walls would be much thinner.”
Laurel sat back very slowly. This didn’t make sense at all.
She had an actual plant growing out of her back! A mutant, parasite flower! She was the freak of all freaks and, if anyone ever found out, she’d be poked and prodded for the rest of her life. Her head started to spin and she felt like all the air had suddenly been sucked out of the room. Her chest constricted and she couldn’t seem to draw in a big enough breath. “I gotta go,” she mumbled.
“Wait,” David said, holding on to her arm. “Don’t go. Not when you’re all freaked out like this.” He tried to meet her eyes, but she refused to look at him. “I’m really worried about you. Can’t you just tell me what’s wrong?”
She stared into his blue eyes. They were soft and earnest. It wasn’t that she didn’t think he could keep a secret; she was sure he would. She trusted him, she realised. She had to tell someone. Trying to muddle through on her own hadn’t worked. Really hadn’t worked.
Maybe he could understand. What did she have to lose?
She hesitated. “You won’t tell anyone? Ever?”
“Do you swear?”
He nodded solemnly.
“I need to hear you say it, David.”
“There’s no expiration date on this promise. If I tell you” - her emphasis on the if was unmistakable - “you can’t ever tell anyone. Never. Not in ten years or twenty or fifty-”
“Laurel, stop! I promise I won’t tell anyone, ever. Not unless you tell me to.”
She stared at him. “It’s not a piece of a flower, David. It’s a piece of me.”
David looked at her for a long time. “What do you mean, it’s a piece of you?”
She’d passed the point of no return. “I got this lump on my back. That’s why I’ve been so weird. I thought I had cancer or a tumour or something. But this morning this…this flower thing bloomed out of my back. I have a flower growing out of my spine.” She sat back with her arms folded over her chest, daring him to accept her now.
David stared with his mouth slightly open. He stood, hands at his waist, lips pressed together. He turned and walked to his bed and sat down with his elbows on his knees. “I’m going to ask this once, because I have to - but I won’t ever ask again because I’ll believe your answer, OK?”
“Is this a joke, or do you really believe what you just said?”
She shot to her feet and headed towards the door. It had been a mistake to come to him. A huge mistake. But before she could turn the doorknob, David stepped in front of her, blocking her way.
“Wait. I said I had to ask once. And I meant it. You swear to me this isn’t a joke, and I’ll believe you.”
She met his eyes and studied them carefully. What she saw there surprised her. It wasn’t disbelief; it was uncertainty. He just didn’t want to be the victim of a stupid prank. She wanted to prove she wouldn’t do that - not to him.
“I’ll show you,” she said, but it sounded more like a question.
“OK.” His voice was tentative too.
She turned her back and fiddled with the knot in the scarf. As she released the enormous petals, she pushed her shirt up in the back so they could slowly rise to their normal position.
David gaped, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open. “But how - you can’t - they’re - what the hell?”
Laurel gave him a tight-lipped grimace. “Yeah.”
“Can I…can I look closer?”
Laurel nodded and David stepped forward hesitantly.
“I won’t bite,” she said, but her tone was humourless.
“I know; it’s just…” His face reddened. “Never mind.” He stepped close behind her and stroked his fingers along the long, smooth surfaces. “Is this OK?” he asked.
David prodded very gently all around the base where her skin melded into the small, green leaves. “There’s not even a seam here. They flow right into your skin. It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”
Laurel looked down at the floor, unsure of what to say.
“I can understand why you’ve been a little weird this week.”
“You have no idea,” Laurel said as she sat down on his bed and turned her back to the window so the sun could shine on the petals. The sunlight was strangely comforting.
David stared at her, his eyes full of questions. But he said nothing. He sat across the room from her, his eyes darting from her face to the tips of the petals sticking up over her shoulders, and back again. “Do you…?” But he stopped.
After a minute he stood and paced a few times. “Could it…?” He stopped speaking again and continued pacing.
Laurel rubbed her temples. “Please don’t pace - it drives me nuts.”
David immediately dropped into a chair. “Sorry.” He studied her again. “You know this is impossible, right?”
“Trust me, I’m aware.”
“I just…I know, seeing is believing, but I feel like if I blink a couple of times, I’ll wake up…or my vision will suddenly clear or something.”
“It’s OK,” Laurel said, focusing on her hands in her lap. “I’m still waiting to wake up too.” She reached over her shoulder, grabbed a long petal and studied it for a few seconds before letting it go. It bounced right back up to float beside her shoulder.
“You’re not going to tie them up again?” David asked.
“They feel better if I leave them loose.”
“They feel better? You can feel them?”
He looked over at the remaining bit she had cut off. “Did that hurt?”
“It stung a lot.”
“Can you…move them?”
“I don’t think so. Why?”
“Well, if you can feel them, they might be more a part of you than just a…growth. Maybe it’s not really flower petals, maybe they’re more like - well, wings.” He laughed. “Sounds really weird, huh?”
Laurel giggled. “Weirder than the fact that they’re growing out of my back in the first place?”
“You got a point.” He let out a sigh as his eyes drifted back to the petals shimmering in the sun. “So…do you have to water them…it?”
“I don’t know.” Laurel snorted. “Wouldn’t that be nice? Then I’d have an easy way to make it die.”
David muttered something under his breath.
David shrugged. “I think it’s pretty, that’s all.”
Laurel glanced over her shoulders at the blue-tinged ruffly edges that spanned out on each side of her. “Do you?”
“Sure. If you went to school like that, I bet half the girls there would be insanely jealous.”
“And the other half would be staring at me like I was a freak of nature. No, thank you.”
“So what are you going to do?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know what I can do. Nothing, I guess.” She laughed humourlessly. “Wait for it to take over my body and kill me?”
“Maybe it will go away.”
“Right, that’s what I kept telling myself about the bump.”
David hesitated. “Have you…told your parents?”
Laurel shook her head.
“Are you going to?”
She shook her head again.
“I think you should.”
Laurel swallowed hard. “I’ve been thinking about that since I woke up.” She turned to look at him. “If you were a parent and your kid told you she had a giant flower growing out of her back, what would you do?”
David started to say something, then looked down at the ground.
“You would do the responsible thing. You’d take her to the hospital; she’d get poked and prodded and become a medical freak. That’s what would happen to me. I don’t want to be that kid, David.”
“Maybe your mom could make something to help,” David suggested half-heartedly.
“We both know this is way bigger than anything my mom could fix.” Laurel clasped her fingers in front of her. “Honestly, if this thing is going to kill me, I’d rather it did it in private. And if it goes away,” she said with a shrug, spreading her hands out in front of her, “then it’s better that no one else knew.”
“OK,” David finally said. “But I think you need to reconsider if anything else happens.”
“What else could happen?” Laurel asked.
“It could get bigger. Or spread.”
“Spread?” She hadn’t considered that.
“Yeah, like if leaves started growing across your back - or you got flowers…some other place.”
She was quiet for a long time. “I’ll think about it.”
He chuckled dryly. “I guess I see now why you couldn’t come to the beach today.”
“Oh, shoot. I’m so sorry. I completely forgot.”
“It’s OK. It’s not for another couple of hours.” He was quiet for a while. “I’d invite you again, but…” He gestured at the petals, and Laurel nodded ruefully. “Wouldn’t exactly work.”
“Can I come see you afterwards, though? Just to make sure you’re OK?”
Tears built up in Laurel’s eyes. “Do you think I will be OK?”
David joined her on the bed and draped one arm around her shoulders. “I hope so.”
“You don’t know that though, do you?”
“No,” David replied honestly. “But I certainly hope so.”
She rubbed her arm across her face. “Thanks.”
“So can I come?”
She smiled up at him and nodded.
Laurel was lounging on the couch when the doorbell rang. “I’ll get it,” she called. She opened the door and smiled at David in his black T-shirt over bright yellow board shorts. “Hey,” she said, stepping out on to the porch and pulling the door shut behind her. “How was the party?”
David shrugged. “Would’ve been more fun with you there.” He hesitated. “How are you?”
Laurel looked down at the ground. “I’m OK. Same as this morning.”
“Does it hurt or anything?”
She shook her head.
She felt his hand trace down her arm. “It’ll be OK,” he said softly.
“How’s it supposed to be OK, David? I have a flower growing on my back. That is not OK.”
“I meant, we’ll figure something out.”
She smiled sadly. “I’m sorry. You came over to be nice, and I’m just—” Her voice cut off as bright headlights cut across her face. She held a hand up to block the glare and watched a car pull into the driveway. A tall, broad-shouldered man stepped out and began walking towards them.
“This the Sewell residence?” His voice was low and gravelly.
“Yeah,” Laurel said as he stepped into the light on the porch. Laurel wrinkled her nose involuntarily. His face didn’t look quite right. The facial bones were sharp and rugged and his left eye drooped. His long nose looked like it had been broken a few times without being set correctly and, even though he wasn’t sneering, his mouth was set in a permanent look of disappointment. His shoulders were enormously broad and the suit he was wearing looked out of place on his bulky form.
“Are your parents home?” the man asked.
“Yeah, just a sec.” She turned slowly. “Um, come on in.”
She held the door open and both the man and David stepped through. As the three of them stood in the entryway the man sniffed, then cleared his throat. “You have a bonfire or something today?” he asked, looking critically at David.
“Yeah,” David said. “Down at the beach. I was in charge of lighting it, and let’s just say there was a lot of smoke before there was any fire.” He laughed for a second, but when the man did not even smile, he fell silent.
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