Other, p.3
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       Other, p.3

           Karen Kincy
 
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  Two

  I keep my eyes shut—I can’t bear to look at Zack. Any second now, he’s going to say something horrible, be horrified of me.

  My muscles tighten, but I’m not sure why. An instinct to brace myself, perhaps, or run away.

  “Gwen?” he says. “Are you okay?”

  When I’m sure my eyes are normal, I open them. Instead of disgust and shock on Zack’s face, he looks surprised, bemused. I look at his neck and wince, though the bite isn’t as nasty as I thought. I grit my teeth until they return to human bluntness.

  “Sorry,” I say. “I … I got a little carried away.”

  Zack arches an eyebrow. “A little?”

  Scalding blood rushes to my cheeks. I look away from him, my hair curtaining my face.

  “Hey.” He tucks my hair behind my ear. “Don’t be embarrassed. I like seeing a little of your wild side.”

  I laugh feebly. “Yeah.” If only he knew just how wild.

  Zack touches the bite again. “Let me clean it up.”

  He heads for the bathroom, and I slump in the chair. Bollocks. Why do I feel so turned on? And why is that waking up my Otherness? I shouldn’t have shapeshifted last night. I must have really riled up my pooka side.

  Zack returns, holding a tissue to his neck. He brings it to his face. “I think it’s clotting.”

  Clotting. How romantic. “I’m so sorry,” I say.

  He stares at me. “You, uh, have some on your mouth.”

  I lick my lips and taste blood. My stomach squirms. He hands me another tissue, and I wipe it off.

  The corner of Zack’s mouth curves upward. “Bloodsucker.”

  I try to laugh, but my face burns. “Ugh. Vampires are disgusting.”

  “I don’t know.” His smile widens. “They’re kind of sexy.”

  If only he knew what I’d just blogged about. I wish he’d stop joking around and say what he actually thinks of Others, bloodborn or natural born.

  I wrinkle my nose. “I don’t think so.”

  He nods. “My parents say they’re soulless. Children of Lilith and all that.”

  My heartbeat stumbles, then comes back, pounding harder than ever. Some Christians interpret the Bible to mean that Lilith’s demonspawn offspring are what we now call Others. Does Zack actually believe this?

  “Oh?” I try to sound flippant. “What do you think?”

  He shrugs. “Probably just stories to spice up the Bible.”

  “You do know that vampirism is nothing more than a glorified disease. They shouldn’t even be called Others, probably. Not the same at all.”

  “Same as what?”

  My heart thumps against my ribs. “Others who are natural born. You know. Not bitten.”

  “Close enough,” he says.

  I really, really wish I could set him straight.

  “Anyway …” Zack slides his hand up my back.

  I exhale. The taste of blood lingers on my tongue. My fingers brush the bite on his neck. He flinches, but lets me touch it.

  “That’s one heck of a hickey,” he says.

  I groan. “Heck of a hickey? Lame, Zack, lame.” But I’m smiling.

  “I tried,” he says, leaning in for a kiss that I dodge.

  I glance at the clock. “We should get going if we want to catch the bus to Wilding Park.”

  “All right,” Zack says, and I can’t read his voice.

  As we sit together on the bus, he puts his arm over my shoulders and stares out the window, his eyes cool. I never thought we would be together so long—or get so intimate. I still haven’t told him I’m a virgin. Or that I’m Other.

  I can’t keep lying to him. He doesn’t deserve it. I don’t.

  

  Zack and I walk through Klikamuks, hand-in-hand. Wilding Park is in the middle of town, on the Stillaguamish River. Dollops of lemon meringue cloud float high in the sky. Balsam poplars rustle by the river and scent the air with their honey-spice resin. Kids scamper around, shrieking, and a guy does tricks with a kite.

  We lounge on a lawn spangled with dandelions and I inhale the clover-sweet hay-smell of grass. I want to shapeshift into a cat, curl up, and snooze. Cats can get away with that. I sigh and shut my eyes. Maybe the rest of today will be peaceful.

  “Your hair,” Zack says.

  “What about it?”

  “It looks like a halo.” He fingers one of my curls.

  I smile, keep my eyes shut, and let myself relax. Zack’s sweat has a subtle musky aroma, sweet as rain and earthy as truffles—intoxicating. Warm breath fans across my face. My eyelids snap open. Zack is leaning over me, a hairsbreadth away from kissing me. He touches my cheek, strokes my neck, and lets his fingers linger on the pulse leaping there. The cross dangles from his neck, winking in the sun. I can’t look away.

  “Where did you get that from, anyway?” I say, to distract both him and myself.

  He frowns. “Get what?”

  I catch the cross between two fingers. “This.”

  “My grandmother gave it to me before she passed away.”

  “Oh.”

  Zack leans closer to me. The scattering of blond stubble on his jaw glints.

  “All these people are watching,” I say.

  His mouth twitches. With amusement or annoyance? “You never cared before.”

  Before I can speak again, he knots his hands in my hair and kisses me without restraint. I clench fistfuls of grass.

  I remember my first kiss with Zack (my first kiss with a guy, if you discount a kindergarten birthday party). We met when we were both volunteering at the Klikamuks Public Library. One evening, the power went out. Pitch black. We blundered into each other, whispering, laughing. Zack found a flashlight and turned it on—but it dropped from his hand and rolled onto the ground when our lips met.

  When he withdraws, he frowns. “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing,” I say, somewhat breathlessly. Though of course it’s a lie.

  “You seem tense. You’re not still worried about the bite thing, are you?”

  I shrug, awkwardly with him leaning against me like that. I’ve got to tell him. It’s no use trying to keep pretending I’m fine.

  “Don’t worry about it,” he says. He runs his hands through my hair. I wish he wouldn’t—it’s making this harder.

  “I want to ask you something,” I say.

  “Go ahead.”

  I force myself to meet his gaze. He lifts one eyebrow.

  “You don’t know everything about me,” I say. The words sound staccato, squeezed by the tightness in my throat.

  He nods. “That’s okay. I want to get to know you better.”

  “Yeah,” I say lamely.

  Zack plucks a dandelion and starts tearing off petals. A brutal version of she loves me, she loves me not.

  “Let’s go walk by the river,” I say. “Find someplace more private.”

  His eyes brighten, and I regret my choice of words. I want to talk, not make out.

  We zigzag down a paved trail to a beach along the Stillaguamish River. Egg-sized pebbles clatter underfoot. The river always smells like green, sun-warmed water. It usually tastes good, too: lukewarm, a little cloudy, and sweet. But when I cup my hands and bring river water to my lips, a sour smell stops me. I hear the faraway drone of an airplane and faint conversation, but no birdsong, no peeping frogs.

  “So quiet today,” Zack says.

  I nod and twist my toes inside my sneakers. I let him lead me to a bench nestled in salmonberry bushes.

  “Zack?” I say.

  “What?”

  As lame as this sounds, I don’t—can’t—say anything.

  “Maybe we’ve both been trying to say the same thing.” He clasps my hand and rubs his thumb over my knuckles.

  “Um …” I laugh nervously. “Have we?”

  “It’s okay.” Zack circles his arm around me. “I totally understand.”

  “You do?”

  “It has to be the rig
ht time. I believe sex should be special.” He flushes slightly.

  “Oh. Yes. Of course.” I blink several times and withdraw. “I’m glad you think so.”

  He nuzzles the hollow of my neck, sending a stab of desire through me.

  “Let’s walk.” I’m amazed how lighthearted I sound.

  Zack tries to hold my hand, but I pretend not to notice. I reach for a pebble glinting with mica. Then I freeze. Right beside my foot, a dead brown bird lies spread-winged, still as a stone, its beak open piteously.

  “Oh.” The word escapes me as a puff of air. “Poor thing.”

  “Don’t touch it,” Zack says. “It could’ve died of disease.”

  I frown at the bird and keep walking. Beneath the fallen leaves of a bush, I find a dead tree frog. Then another, nearby.

  My frown deepens. “Maybe some pesticide got into the river.”

  “Probably,” Zack says.

  We find two more frogs by the riverbank. They lie with their legs splayed and pale bellies bared. They look pitiful.

  “It’s got to be poison,” I say. “Maybe we should stay away from the water.”

  Zack nods.

  I walk away from the Stillaguamish and climb a pebbly slope. On the other side lies a backwater pool. And—

  “Holy crap.” I suck in my breath. “Zack!”

  He jogs up the slope and stops beside me. “What … ?”

  Two bodies float in the pool. A man, facedown, duckweed clinging to his shirt. A woman, staring heavenward. Her long, dark tangle of hair drifts over her marble-pale arms. Waves lap her pregnant belly.

  Zack presses his hand to his mouth, even though I don’t smell anything. They must have just died. I slide one foot forward, then the other. I see myself reflected in her unseeing blue eyes. She was—still is—beautiful. A mosquito larva swims between her cupid’s bow lips and rests on her pearly teeth. Her skin looks silvery, though that might be the water. I squint at her hands, at a translucence between her fingers …

  “Gwen.” Zack sounds hoarse. “Let’s go. We need to get help.”

  “They’re already dead,” I say flatly.

  “We need to tell someone.”

  I nod, but don’t move when he tugs on my arm. I can’t stop staring.

  “It’s okay,” Zack says. “Come on. It’s okay.” He seems to be saying it to himself.

  When I at last look away, I realize what I saw. Webbing between her fingers. “Water sprites,” I whisper.

  Zack doesn’t say anything. I hope he didn’t hear me. After he calls 911, we clasp hands and walk away from the pair of bodies. I can’t stop shivering, even in the sun. We huddle together on a log until the police come.

  The police head for the bodies and check futilely for signs of life. A woman with steel-wool hair introduces herself as Officer Sharpe from the sheriff’s office. She asks for ID. Zack digs out a driver’s license and I show my learner’s permit. Officer Sharpe inspects them. Another officer starts questioning Zack.

  Officer Sharpe asks me why we were here and how we found the bodies. I try not to wilt under her stern stare. My voice quavers as I answer, and sweat wets my armpits. Please don’t ask me if I’m Other. Not in front of Zack.

  The CSI unit arrives and ropes off the pond with yellow tape. Surely they’ll uncover the truth about the water sprites.

  “Gwen?” Officer Sharpe snaps me out of it. “Did you?”

  “Sorry. What did you say?”

  “Did you know these people?”

  I shake my head hard. Too vigorously, maybe, because Officer Sharpe frowns and scribbles something on her notepad.

  “Did they drown?” I ask, playing dumb. Water sprites breathe water just as well as air.

  “We won’t know until we run some tests.” She scribbles some more. “You’re free to go. We might follow up with a detective.”

  “A detective?” My voice sounds squeaky.

  “Don’t worry,” Officer Sharpe says briskly. “Standard procedure.”

  I exhale and move into Zack’s arms. “I want to go home.”

  He hugs me. “Let’s go.”

  We’re silent all the way back to the bus stop, until we sit on the bus stop bench.

  “Poor people,” Zack says softly. “I wonder how they drowned.”

  I say nothing.

  That night, I dream of cold white flesh and death-clouded eyes. My toes touch the shore of a black pool. Water sprites reach for me, pondweed clinging to their arms.

  “Help us,” they whisper.

  “I can’t,” I say, my gut twisting. “You’re dead.”

  They stroke my ankles with icy fingers. “You are one of us.”

  I run away and let them die.

  

  On the morning news, I learn their names: Nadia and Douglas Nix. They lived in a suburban area on the outskirts of Klikamuks. I didn’t even know they existed. How many of us are out there, too scared to even admit our Otherness? And they died before I could ever meet them … all because of pesticide in the river.

  Pesticide. Wouldn’t it take a lot to kill two people? And the nearest field is maybe ten miles from Wilding Park. If some farmer really did dump a lot of horrible chemicals into the river, there would be dead fish all over the place, not a few animals by one backwater pool. Unless, of course, somebody poisoned it on purpose.

  Were the water sprites murdered?

  When I tell my parents my theory, they both sit at the kitchen table and stare at me.

  “Gwen,” Mum says, her face tight. “What you saw must have been … shocking. But there’s no proof of poison.”

  “It was an accident,” Dad says. “Let the police handle this.”

  “It wasn’t,” I say. “Water sprites can’t drown.”

  Dad scratches his beard. “How are you sure they’re water sprites?”

  “They had webbing between their fingers.”

  Mum shakes her head. “That’s a medical condition, you know. In humans.”

  “How common is it?” I say.

  “I’m not sure,” she says. “But Gwen … I wouldn’t worry.”

  “On the Internet,” I say, “it says water sprites have thin skin, like frogs. The poison must have killed them that way.”

  “You can’t believe everything on the Internet,” Dad says.

  “Whatever!” I throw up my hands. “I know what I saw.”

  My parents share a long-suffering look that irritates the crap out of me. I stalk upstairs and shut—okay, slam—my bedroom door. I hate how they think they know everything about every Other on the planet just because I’m half pooka.

  I grab my phone and call my number one confidant, but I get voicemail. I’ll leave a message and then go to her place. “Hey, Chloe, it’s Gwen. I’m going to head over to the B&B and see if you’re there. I need somebody to commiserate with. Life sucks, as usual. Not to sound emo or anything. Okay, see you later. Bye.”

  I jog to the bus stop, my throat tight. I neglect the bench and kick pinecones into the ditch until the bus comes. I need to talk to somebody. On the ride to Klikamuks, the heat of my anger cools and my skin feels clammy. The bus rumbles over a bridge and crawls along Main Street. Tourists prowl the sidewalks, lured by antique stores with silly things like amethyst cut-glass vases, Victorian ladies’ gloves and boots, and porcelain cat figurines. I get off and walk past cottages with gingerbread trim, then stop outside a sunny yellow B&B called Bramble Cottage.

  It looks oh-so-quaint, a perfect tourist trap. Postcard-worthy roses clamber over the walls. Almost all are abloom, and perfume drifts across the street. The owner, Chloe Amabilis, happens to be a garden addict—and a dryad.

  I hadn’t even met Chloe until two years ago, when I got lost in the forest and she saw me shapeshifting. I almost panicked, but after a tense standoff, she revealed she was also Other. I was totally flabbergasted to discover a dryad. They’re an endangered species—only a handful remain after centuries of logging. Dryads used to be worshipped i
n Greece as the guardian spirits of trees, but now a lot of people see them as squatters on valuable land. Chloe emigrated to America in search of friendlier forests.

  I hear hammering inside Bramble Cottage. When I open the door, I see a guy on a ladder tacking up wooden trim in the foyer. His paint-flecked jeans droop low, weighted by the tools on his belt. I try not to stare at his butt.

  This has to be the new guy Chloe’s been going on and on about. Chiseled, rugged, stubbly. Just her type. When he sees me, he pulls off his headphones. I hear classical music. Huh. For some reason, I expected heavy metal.

  “Are you Randall Lowell?” I ask.

  “Yeah.” He has a low, husky voice. “How’d you know?”

  “Chloe mentioned you.”

  “Ah.” Randall brushes his hair—shaggy dark brown, with a streak of silver—from his eyes. “She’s upstairs.”

  “Thanks.”

  I climb the creaky narrow staircase, gripping the banister. I don’t know why more Victorians didn’t break their necks. Upstairs, sunbeams stripe the faded pink carpet and the botanical prints of magical herbs. On the wallpaper, faeries are darting through vines. Not the fluttery Tinkerbell kind, which is a stereotype started by faeries to befuddle humans, but exquisitely elegant winged people with fire in their eyes.

  “Chloe?” I call.

  “In here,” she says, behind a half-open bedroom door.

  I step inside. A cabbage-rose rug covers most of the floor. Chloe is dusting a collection of rose-shaped chamber pots. A sunbeam slants through the dormer window and glimmers on the corn-silk hair swaying at her slender waist. She wears a dress of unbleached, 100 percent organic cotton, being a true tree-hugger. I clear my throat, and Chloe glances back at me, her eyes the serene green of a woodland glade.

  “Gwen.” She touches my arm, and I catch a whiff of her sweet scent. Sometimes it reminds me of an orchard of ripening pears; other times, of hay drying in the sun. “Is everything all right? You look a little pale.”

  “Except for discovering two dead bodies, I’m okay.”

  “What?” Chloe’s eyes widen. “You aren’t joking, are you?”

  I shake my head.

  “Let’s go upstairs to my room,” she says. “I don’t want any guests interrupting us.”

  “Definitely,” I say, with a crappy attempt at a laugh.

  I follow Chloe upstairs to her attic bedroom. There’s a prim little bed in the corner, though she prefers slumbering in trees as often as possible.

  She sits at the foot of her bed and pats the quilt beside her. “Now tell me everything.”

 
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