The summoning, p.3
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       The Summoning, p.3

         Part #1 of Darkest Powers series by Kelley Armstrong
 
Page 3

 

  The twisted lips parted. “Maybe now you'll pay attention to me. ”

  I ran headlong down the hall. As I flew past one classroom door, it opened.

  “Chloe?” A man's voice.

  I kept running.

  “Talk to me!” the horrible, garbled voice snarled, getting closer. “Do you know how long I've been trapped here?”

  I flew through the doors into the stairwell and headed up.

  Up? All the stupid heroines go up!

  I veered across the landing and hit the next set of stairs.

  The custodian limped up the flight below, fingers clutching the railing, melted fingers, bone peeking through—

  I barreled through the doors and raced along the main hall.

  “Listen to me, you selfish brat. All I want is five minutes—”

  I swerved into the nearest empty classroom and slammed the door. As I backed into the center of the room, the custodian stepped through the door. Right through it. That awful melted face was gone, and he was normal again.

  “Is that better? Now will you stop screaming and talk to—”

  I darted to the window and started looking for a way to open it, then saw how far down it was. At least thirty feet… onto pavement.

  “Chloe!”

  The door flew open. It was the vice principal, Ms. Waugh, with my math teacher, Mr. Travis, and a music teacher whose name I couldn't remember. Seeing me at the window, Ms. Waugh threw out her arms, blocking the two men.

  “Chloe?” she said, voice low. “Honey, you need to step away from that window. ”

  “I was just—”

  “Chloe…”

  Confused, I glanced back toward the window.

  Mr. Travis shot past Ms. Waugh and tackled me. As we hit the floor, the air flew out of my lungs. Scrambling off, he accidentally kneed me in the stomach. I fell back, doubled over, wheezing.

  I opened my eyes to see the custodian standing over me. I screamed and tried to get up, but Mr. Travis and the music teacher held me down while Ms. Waugh babbled into a cell phone.

  The custodian leaned through Mr. Travis. “Now will you talk to me, girl? Can't get away. ”

  I thrashed, kicking at the custodian, trying to pull away from the teachers. They only held me tighter. I vaguely heard Ms. Waugh calling that help was on the way. The custodian pushed his face into mine and it changed to that horrible melted mask, so close I was staring into his one bulging eye, almost out of its socket.

  I chomped down on my tongue so I wouldn't scream. Blood filled my mouth. The more I fought, the harder the teachers restrained me, twisting my arms, pain stabbing through me.

  “Can't you see him?” I shouted. “He's right there. Please. Please, please, please. Get him away from me. Get him away!”

  They wouldn't listen. I continued to struggle, to argue, but they held me still as the burned man taunted me.

  Finally, two men in uniforms hurried through the door. One helped the teachers restrain me while the other moved behind, out of my sight. Fingers tightened on my forearm.

  Then a needle prick. Ice slid through my veins.

  The room started to sway. The custodian faded, blinking in and out.

  “No!” he yelled. “I need to speak to her. Don't you understand? She can hear me. I only want to…”

  His voice faded as the paramedics lowered me onto a stretcher. It rose, swaying. Swaying . . . like an elephant. I'd rode one once, with my mom, at the zoo, and my mind slipped back there, Mom's arms around me, her laughter—

  The custodian's howl of rage sliced through my memory. “Don't take her away. I need her!”

  Swaying. The elephant swaying. Mom laughing…

  Four

  I SAT ON THE EDGE of my hospital bed and tried to persuade myself I was still asleep. That was the best explanation for what I was hearing. I could also chalk it up to delusional, but I preferred dreaming.

  Aunt Lauren sat beside me, holding my hand. My eyes went to the nurses gliding past in the corridor. She followed my gaze, rose, and shut the door. Through a glaze of tears, I watched her and pictured Mom instead. Something inside me crumpled, and I was six years old, huddled on the bed, crying for my mother.

  I rubbed my hands over the covers, stiff and scratchy, catching at my dry skin. The room was so hot every breath made my parched throat tighten. Aunt Lauren handed me my water, and I wrapped my hands around the cool glass. The water had a metallic taste, but I gulped it down.

  “A group home,” I said. The walls seemed to suck the words from my mouth, like a sound stage, absorbing them and leaving only dead air.

  “Oh God, Chloe. ” She pulled a tissue from her pocket and wiped her nose. “Do you know how many times I've had to tell a patient he's dying? And somehow, this seems harder. ”

  She shifted to face me. “I know how badly you want to go to UCLA for college. This is the only way we're going to get you there, hon. ”

  “Is it Dad?”

  She paused, and I knew she'd like to blame him. She'd wanted to raise me after my mom passed away, spare me a life of housekeepers and empty apartments. She'd never forgiven my father for refusing. Just like she'd never forgiven him for that night my mother died. It didn't matter that they'd been sideswiped in a hit-?and-?run—he'd been driving, so she held him responsible.

  “No,” she said finally. “It's the school. Unless you spend two weeks undergoing evaluation in a group home, it will go on your permanent record. ”

  “What will go on my record?”

  Her fist clenched around the tissue. “It's that da—” She caught herself. “It's the zero-?tolerance policy. ” She spit the words with more venom than the curse.

  “Zero tolerance? You mean violence? B-?b-?but I didn't—”

  “I know you didn't. But to them, it's simple. You struggled with a teacher. You need help. ” In a home. For crazy kids.

  I awoke several times that night. The second time, my father was in the doorway, watching me. The third, he was sitting beside my bed. Seeing my eyes open, he reached over and awkwardly patted my hand.

  “It's going to be all right,” he murmured. “Everything will be all right. ”

  I fell back to sleep.

  My father was still there the next morning. His eyes were bleary, the wrinkles around his mouth deeper than I remembered. He'd been up all night, flying back from Berlin.

  I don't think Dad ever wanted kids. But he'd never tell me that, even in anger. Whatever Aunt Lauren thinks of him, he does his best. He just doesn't seem to know what to make of me. I'm like a puppy left to him by someone he loved very much, and he struggles to do right by it even if he isn't much of a dog person.

  “You changed your hair,” he said as I sat up.

  I braced myself. When you run screaming through the school halls after dying your hair in the girls' bathroom, the first thing people say—well, after they get past the screaming-?through-?the-?halls part—is “you were doing what?” Coloring your hair in a school bathroom isn't normal. Not for girls like me. And bright red streaks? While skipping class? It screams mental breakdown.

  “Do you like it?” my father asked after a moment.

  I nodded.

  He paused, then let out a strained chuckle. “Well, it's not exactly what I would have chosen, but it looks all right. If you like it, that's what counts. ” He scratched his throat, peppered with beard shadow. “I guess your aunt Lauren told you about this group home business. She's found one she thinks will be okay. Small, private. Can't say I'm thrilled with the idea, but it's only for a couple of weeks. …”

  No one would say what was wrong with me. They had me talk to a bunch of doctors and they ran some tests, and I could tell they had a good idea what was wrong and just wouldn't say it. That meant it was bad.

  This wasn't the first time I'd seen people who weren't really there. That's what Aunt Lauren had wanted to tal
k to me about after school. When I'd mentioned the dream, she'd remembered how I used to talk about people in our old basement. My parents figured it was my creative version of make-?believe friends, inventing a whole cast of characters. Then those friends started terrifying me, so much that we'd moved.

  Even after that, I'd sometimes “seen” people, so my mom bought me my ruby necklace and said it would protect me. Dad said it was all about psychology. I'd believed it worked, so it had. But now, it was happening again. And this time, no one was chalking it up to an overactive imagination.

  They were sending me to a home for crazy kids. They thought I was crazy. I wasn't. I was fifteen and had finally gotten my period and that had to count for something. It couldn't just be coincidence that I'd started seeing things the same day. All those stockpiled hormones had exploded and my brain misfired, plucking images from forgotten movies and tricking me into thinking they were real.

  If I was crazy, I'd be doing more than seeing and hearing people who weren't there. I'd be acting crazy, and I wasn't.

  Was I?

  The more I thought about it, the more I wasn't sure. I felt normal. I couldn't remember doing anything weird. Except for dying my hair in the bathroom. And skipping class. And breaking into the napkin dispenser. And fighting with a teacher.

  That last one didn't count. I'd been freaked out from seeing that burned guy and I'd been struggling to get away from him, not trying to hurt anyone. Before that, I'd been fine. My friends had thought I was fine. Mr. Petrie thought I was fine when he put me on the director short list. Nate Bozian obviously thought I was fine. You wouldn't be happy that a crazy girl was going to a dance.

  He had been happy, hadn't he?

  When I thought back, it all seemed fuzzy, like some distant memory that maybe I only dreamed.

  What if none of that happened? I'd wanted the director spot. I'd wanted Nate to be interested in me. Maybe I'd imagined it all. Hallucinated it, like the boy on the street and the crying girl and the burned janitor.

  If I was crazy, would I know it? That's what being crazy was, wasn't it? You thought you were fine. Everyone else knew better.

  Maybe I was crazy.

  My father and Aunt Lauren drove me to Lyle House on Sunday afternoon. They'd given me some medicine before I left the hospital and it made me sleepy. Our arrival was a montage of still shots and clips.

  A huge white Victorian house perched on an oversized lot. Yellow trim. A swing on the wraparound porch.

  Two women. The first, gray haired and wide hipped, coming forward to greet me. The younger one's dour eyes following me, her arms crossed, braced for trouble.

  Walking up a long narrow flight of stairs. The older woman—a nurse, who introduced herself as Mrs. Talbot—chirping a guided tour that my fuzzy brain couldn't follow.

  A bedroom, white and yellow, decorated with daisies, smelling of hair gel.

  On the far side of the room, a twin bed with a quilt yanked over the bunched-?up sheets. The walls over the bed decorated with pages ripped from teen magazines. The dresser covered with makeup tubes and bottles. Only the tiny desk bare.

  My side of the room was a sterile mirror image—same bed, same dresser, same tiny desk, all wiped clean of personality.

  Time for Dad and Aunt Lauren to go. Mrs. Talbot explained I wouldn't see them for a couple of days because I needed time to “acclimate” to my new “environment. ” Like a pet in a new home.

  Hugging Aunt Lauren. Pretending I didn't see the tears in her eyes.

  An awkward embrace from Dad. He mumbled that he'd stay in town, and he would come to visit as soon as they let him. Then he pressed a roll of twenties into my hand as he kissed the top of my head.

  Mrs. Talbot telling me they'd put my things away, since I was probably tired. Just crawl into bed. The blind closing. Room going dark. Falling back to sleep.

  My father's voice waking me. Room completely dark now, black outside. Night.

  Dad silhouetted in the doorway. The younger nurse—-Miss Van Dop—behind him, face set in disapproval. My father moving to my bedside and pressing something soft into my arms. “We forgot Ozzie. I wasn't sure you'd sleep without him. ” The koala bear had been on a shelf in my room for two years, banished from my bed when I'd outgrown him. But I took him and buried my nose in his ratty fake fur that smelled of home.

  I awoke to the wheezy sleep breathing of the girl in the next bed. I looked over but saw only a form under the quilt.

  As I turned onto my back, hot tears slid down my cheeks. Not homesickness. Shame. Embarrassment. Humiliation.

  I'd scared Aunt Lauren and Dad. They'd had to scramble to figure out what to do with me. What was wrong with me. How to fix it.

  And school…

  My cheeks burned hotter than my tears. How many kids had heard me screaming? Peeked in that classroom while I'd been fighting the teachers and babbling about being chased by melted custodians. Seen me being taken away strapped to a stretcher.

  Anyone who'd missed the drama would have heard about it. Everyone would know that Chloe Saunders had lost it. That she was nuts, crazy, locked up with the rest of the loonies.

  Even if they let me return to school, I didn't think I'd ever have the guts to go back.

  Five

  I WOKE TO THE CLINK-?CLINK of metal hangers. A blond girl flipped through clothes that I was pretty sure were mine, hung up yesterday by Mrs. Talbot.

  “Hello,” I said.

  She turned and smiled. “Nice stuff. Good labels. ”

  “I'm Chloe. ”

  “Liz. Like Lizzie McGuire. ” She waved at an old and faded magazine cutout on her wall. “Except, I don't go by Lizzie, 'cause I think it sounds kind of—” she lowered her voice, as if not to offend the picture Lizzie “—babyish. ”
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