Flicker blue 1 plain jan.., p.17
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       Flicker Blue 1: Plain Jane, p.17
 

          
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  ***

  As far as hallucinations went, this took the cake. She had never seen anything like this except from the corner of her eye—fleeting glimpses at best. According to Gram, it was an indicator that she was under too much stress, and it was entirely normal. Never, never ever ever had she seen a vision of something fully corporeal—let alone a full-fledged person that she’d spoken to and interacted with and kind of…well, liked. Her brain may have manufactured Damon, but there was nothing pretend about the uneasy feeling deep in the pit of her stomach. She had experienced stirrings of the same feeling for Adam off and on since they were young adolescents, but never had she felt a physical longing so strong.

  “There are so many people here,” Sparrow sang next to her ear.

  Sophie nodded agreement and smiled at her young friend. Sparrow had not yet been tasked with manning one of the market stalls, so she’d had little occasion to experience crowds of more than the sixty or so residents of the farm. Tonight, walking the same streets where the market was held, there were hundreds of townies in clear sight and more inside of the open shops and restaurants. Even the market was rarely half this crowded except at the Saturday nearest Easter and Christmas, when the market commissioners organized a Santa Claus photo opp and an egg hunt, respectively. To Sparrow, the throng must have seemed immense.

  Tonight, lanterns of all shapes and sizes were suspended from cables strung across the tops of the two- and three-story buildings and over the street. They cast odd stained-glass shadows over patches of the pavement and rendered passersby jewel-toned hues of purple, orange, and green. Mischievous jack-o’-lanterns glinted their scowls and smiles from shop windows. People everywhere walked hand-in-hand or in small groups, laughing and chatting animatedly. Every other adult in the crowd carried with them a red solo cup of pungent brown liquid…including, Sophie noticed as she looked down, Sparrow.

  “What are you drinking?” The question was rhetorical. This was apple country in apple season, and there was no mistaking the smell of a hard cider.

  “Oh, relax. It’s just one cup, Sophie.”

  “You can’t drink alcohol—even just one cup— in the middle of the street. You’re a child.”

  Sparrow tilted her head merrily. “He didn’t know that,” she simpered, and she gestured to a small pack of teenage boys on the other side of the street. Sophie recognized them from market day—a couple of them had tried to strike up conversation with her on several occasions. One of them, a very good-looking blond much closer to Sophie’s age, waved at the two girls and leaned over to one of his friends as if to excuse himself.

  “I think he’s going to come back over here,” Sparrow squealed. “Do you want some cider? I bet he can get you one, too.”

  “I hate to burst your bubble, but your brothers are also coming back over here.” Sophie gestured with her eyes in the other direction.

  Sparrow spotted Julian and Adam and cursed. She shoved the cup into Sophie’s hands and wheeled around to face them. Sophie looked over to where Sparrow’s blond pursuer crossed the street and gave him a hard stare and a nearly imperceptible shake of her head. He paused, confused, then noticed the two six-foot-tall redheads skulking toward them. A light of dawning realization passed over his face, and he doggedly returned to his friends.

  “Having fun, ladies?” Julian asked. “I’ve come to see if my little sister would like to dance. There’s music further on down the street.” He noticed the cup in Sophie’s hand and frowned.

  “Oh—oh, yeah,” Sparrow spoke up, eager to pull him away before he decided to say anything about it. “I definitely wanna dance. Adam, Sophie? You coming?”

  “In a minute,” Adam answered. He waited until he was alone with Sophie to continue. “You’re drinking?” he asked, his voice flavored with amused incredulity. “Really?”

  Sophie gazed down into the plastic cup, still full except for the few sips Sparrow had managed to take before nearly getting caught. It’s not my cup, but what right does he have to criticize me for it? As if he and I haven’t snuck our share of cider barrels at the farm? “Well, Ad. I hadn’t decided yet, but now I think…” she paused to swallow a sweet mouthful of the cider, “I think will be drinking this evening. Care for a sip?”

  “No. I came over to see if you wanted to dance.”

  “Hmmm. As enticing as that sounds, I think I’ll finish my drink first.” She spotted Jenn standing with a few of the younger commune girls just steps away from them. “Why don’t you go ask Jenn if she wants to dance?”

  “Fine,” he answered, puffing his chest out as he walked away.

  No better than Shakespeare, Sophie mused as she watched Adam snatch Jenn’s hand and pull her down the street toward the music. She followed at a distance and sipped her drink. It tasted quite a bit different than the batch brewed on the farm this fall. She caught sight of Julian scowling on the outside of the ring of people watching the dancing couples in front of the small bandstand, and she let out a giggle she hoped didn’t carry as far as he was standing. In the very center of the dancers, Sparrow was all smiles with her arms twisted around the neck of a young man who was clearly not her brother. The blond pursuer seemed to have found a way to cut in, after all. She’s Wren all over again.

  The song the band played was slow, but catchy—just the sort of number to encourage even the most hesitant partners onto the floor. Sophie was nudged forward repeatedly from behind by young couples in wild costumes making their way over to join in. On the other side of the fray, she spotted Jenn and Adam swaying off beat, and she laughed again. The sooner the poor girl figured out that she needed to take the lead, the better it would be for both of them. He actually wasn’t a bad dancer when he followed.

  “And what do you find so amusing?” asked the voice, again from the same place behind her left shoulder. She was afraid to look—not because she feared seeing him again, but because she feared she wouldn’t.

  She answered without turning toward him. “I was just watching my friends dance.”

  A hand slipped around her waist from behind, and she felt a breath at her ear. “Would you like to dance, Sophie?”

  As Damon whispered, she felt her legs threaten to give way beneath her. She’d always thought “weak in the knees” was a stupid expression, but it came to mind now. Dancing seemed like a treacherous idea…but it was exactly what she wanted to do. “Yes,” she answered.

  She turned slowly, relishing the very real sensation of his hand as it swept under her ribcage. She was relieved to see him standing there, black-clad and masked just as he had been on the trail. I’m not going crazy, she thought as she put her hand on his shoulder. He reached for her other hand and laughed to find it holding the red cup.

  “Oh, sorry,” she winced, and she stepped away to toss it into a trash can just a few feet away. When she returned to him, she apologized again, unsure how to pick up where they’d left off just a few moments before. Jeez. Way to spoil the moment, Sophie.

  “I’ll get you another in a bit,” Damon said, obviously misinterpreting her hesitation, and he grabbed her hand and led her deeper into the flood of dancers. “Come on.”

  Breathe, she reminded herself when they stopped in a small space between two other couples. He whirled her around to face him and suddenly she was in his arms. He held her closer than she had expected him to, his entire forearm locked across the small of her back as if it had been designed to fit there, the top of her cheekbone nestled into the hollow under his. And, though he moved with a confident grace that made his steps nearly effortless to follow, the breath in her ear betrayed him. He was every bit as nervous as she was.

  No sooner than she began to take comfort in her new revelation, the music stopped. Sophie took a step back and found herself face-to-face with Damon’s white mask, punctuated only by bright amber-colored eyes. “What are you?” he whispered.

  The band started up again—another slow song—and Sophie, newly empowered by Damon’s brief show of uncertainty, mo
ved back into position against his cheek and led the first few steps of the dance until he caught up with her. “I could ask you the same thing,” she said in his ear, hoping he could hear her over the music. “Where did you go earlier? Why did you disappear?”

  “I don’t care for crowds. I…I’m sorry.”

  “Isn’t this a crowd, Damon?”

  She felt his shoulder tense and release under her hand as he shrugged. “It is…. Maybe I should have said that I don’t like small crowds. You know, the kind where you’re expected to meet everybody.”

  Sophie focused on the breath in her ear as they danced and wondered if he was doing the same thing. Eventually, she spoke again. “I’m glad you turned back up. I was beginning to think I’d imagined you.”

  “I had to see you again,” he replied, as if this were the most obvious fact in the world.

  “Why?”

  “That, Sophie, is a very good question.” He twirled her around once and reeled her back in close to him.

  How is it possible to feel this natural with a stranger? she wondered. It had taken her years to feel this familiar with Adam, and she had never felt this physically attracted to him. Maybe I am imagining this. Suddenly struck with a vision of herself dancing with nothing but a column of air, she missed a step and awkwardly pulled away from him. Damon tried to draw her back in, but she braced her hand against his chest and looked at him, willing his image to disappear.

  “Hey, are you okay? What’s the matter?” he asked.

  She looked him over and noticed, for the first time, the details she’d missed in the darkness on the trail. His hair, which had seemed black, was actually a deep chestnut brown and in need of a good trim; it fell in soft waves over his ears and the top of his mask. On the more exposed side of his face, a deep dimple formed near his mouth as he asked her again. It was impossible to deduce how old he was with so much of his face concealed, but she would have guessed him to be somewhere around Hollis’s age.

  “Sophie, please. Are you okay?”

  “I….” she trailed off uncertainly, and she spotted Sparrow over his shoulder. The red-head looked up from the new partner with whom she was dancing and gave Damon and Sophie an appraising look. When she raised her eyebrows in approval and shot Sophie a victorious thumbs up behind her partner’s back, Sophie exhaled. Oh my God. This is really happening. She looked back at Damon and felt her legs sway again. “I need another drink.”

 
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