The summoning, p.5
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       The Summoning, p.5

         Part #1 of Darkest Powers series by Kelley Armstrong
 
Page 5

 

  “Peeling duty already?” a voice whispered. “What'd you do to deserve that?”

  This time, when I wheeled around, I didn't see a disembodied hand but a whole body. A guy, in fact, maybe a year older than me, a half foot taller and slender, with high cheekbones and dark blond hair worn in short, messy spikes. His almond-?shaped brown eyes danced with amusement.

  “You must be Chloe. ”

  He reached out. I jumped back. The carrot leaped from my hands and bounced off his arm. A real arm. Attached to a real guy.

  "I—I—'

  He put a finger to his lips, then pointed at the dining room door. Beyond it, Mrs. Talbot was talking to Liz.

  “I'm not supposed to be in here,” he whispered. “I'm Simon, by the way. ”

  I was suddenly aware that he was standing between me and the exit. His smile was friendly, and he was definitely cute, but cute didn't count with a guy who had you cornered in a group home.

  He backed up to the walk-?in pantry, lifted a finger telling me to wait, then disappeared inside. I could hear him rooting around in the shelves. When I peeked in, he was taking down a box of graham crackers.

  A kitchen raid? I couldn't help smiling. Guess it didn't matter whether it was a group home or summer camp, guys and their stomachs didn't change. Simon pulled out an unopened sleeve of crackers.

  “The other one's already open,” I whispered, pointing.

  “Thanks, but he'll want the whole thing. Right, bro?”

  I followed his gaze over my shoulder, and let out a yelp. The guy standing behind me had to be six feet tall, with shoulders as wide as the door. Though he was as big as an adult, he'd never be mistaken for one. His face could be used as the “before” picture for acne cream. Dark hair hung in his eyes, lank and dull.

  “I—I—I—” I swallowed. “I didn't see you there. ”

  He reached past me and took the crackers from Simon. When he started to retreat, Simon grabbed the back of his shirt.

  “We're still teaching him manners,” he said to me. “Derek, Chloe. Chloe, my brother, Derek. ”

  “Brother?” I said.

  “Yeah. ” Derek's voice was a low rumble. “Identical twins. ”

  “He's my foster brother,” Simon said. “So I was just about to tell Chloe—”

  “We done here?” Derek said.

  Simon waved him away, then rolled his eyes. “Sorry. Anyway, I was just going to say welcome—”

  “Simon?” Tori's voice echoed through the kitchen. “Aha. I thought I heard you. ” Her fingers closed around the pantry door. “You and Derek, always raiding the—”

  She spotted me and her eyes narrowed.

  “Tori?” Simon said.

  Her expression flipped from simmering to simpering. “Yes?”

  He jabbed a finger toward the dining room door. “Shhhh!”

  As she babbled apologies, I made my escape.

  After I finished the carrots, Mrs. Talbot said I could have free time until lunch and directed me to the media room. If I was hoping for a big-?screen TV with surround sound and a top-?of-?the-?line computer, I was out of luck. There was a twenty-?inch TV, a cheap DVD/VCR combo, an old Xbox, and an even older computer. One flip through the movie collection and I knew I wouldn't be spending much time here… unless I was suddenly nostalgic for the Olsen twins. The only movie rated above PG was JurassicPark, and it was labeled “Please ask before viewing,” like I had to show my school ID card to prove I was over thirteen.

  I turned on the computer. It took five minutes to boot up. Windows 98. I spent another five minutes trying to remember how to use Windows. We had Macs at school and I'd used that as an excuse to finally persuade my dad to buy me an Apple laptop—complete with all the upgraded movie editing programs.

  I searched for a browser. I hoped for Firefox, but wasn't getting anything better than plain old IE. I typed in a URL and held my breath, expecting to get a “cannot connect to the Internet message. ” Instead, the page popped up. Guess we weren't as cut off from the outside world as I'd feared.

  I flipped through my favorite sites, killing time until I worked up the nerve to check my in-?box. A few minutes checking the weekend box office figures cleared my mind, then I typed in the URL to access my MSN account.

  The browser chugged away for a minute, then brought up a “Page cannot be displayed” message. I tried Hotmail. Same thing.

  “Chloe, there you are. ”

  I turned as Mrs. Talbot walked in.

  “I was just . . . ” I waved at the screen. “I wanted to check my e-?mail, but I keep getting this. ”

  She walked over, glanced at the screen and sighed. “It's that Net Nanny software or whatever they use. It does more than block some Web sites, I'm afraid. You can send and receive e-?mail through our account. You need to use the e-?mail program that came with the computer, and get Miss Van Dop to type in the password so you can send it. A pain, I know, but we had a problem last year with a young man accessing sites he shouldn't have and when the board of directors found out…” She shook her head. “We're punishing everyone because of one bad apple, I'm sorry to say. Now, it's time for lunch. ”

  I met the last housemate, Peter, over lunch. He said hello, asked how things were going, then turned his attention to his PSP as he ate. Like everything else at Lyle House, it was all very normal. Too normal. Every time someone moved, I tensed, waiting for her to start speaking in tongues or screaming about bugs crawling over his plate. No one did.

  The food was decent enough. A homemade casserole, chock-?full of vegetables and meat. Healthy, I was sure, like the milk and whole wheat rolls we had to go with it. For dessert we'd been promised Jell-?O. Oh joy.

  The sirens and screeching tires from Peter's game provided most of the meal's soundtrack. Rae was a no-?show. Tori and Liz twittered together, too low for me to join in. Derek was too busy inhaling his food to talk.

  So it was left to Simon to play host. He asked what part of the city I was from. When I admitted I hadn't been in any neighborhood very long, he said they'd moved around a lot, too—him and Derek. We started comparing worst-?move-?ever stories, and Tori jumped in with her own tale of moving horror—from her upstairs bedroom to her basement. Simon let her ramble for about two minutes before asking what grade I was in and at what school.

  I knew he was just being polite—including the new girl in conversation—but if Tori had been a cartoon character, smoke would have billowed from her ears. I'd met girls like that. Territorial, whether it was about a hairbrush, a best friend, or a boy they had their eye on.

  “Art school,” she breathed. “Isn't that just fascinating. Tell me, Chloe. What do you study there? Ghost photography? Ghost writing?”

  I choked on a chunk of meat.

  “Oh. ” Tori turned doe eyes on Simon. “Didn't Chloe tell you why she's here? She sees dead people. ”

  Peter lifted his head from his game. “Really? Cool. ”

  When I looked up, Derek's fork was stopped halfway to his mouth, green eyes piercing the curtain of hair as he stared at me, his lip curled, as if to say What kind of freak thinks she sees ghosts?

  “It's not like that. I—I—I—”

  “There she goes. ” Tori sighed. “Liz, slap her back. See if you can restart her. ”

  Simon glared at her. “Stop being such a bitch, Tori. ”

  She froze, mouth open, a still shot of humiliated horror. Derek returned to his lunch.

  “I didn't mean it that way,” Tori said, words tumbling out. “Like Peter said, it's kinda cool. If she does see ghosts, maybe she could help Liz with her, you know, poltergeist. ”

  “Tori!” Liz shrieked, dropping her fork.

  “Here we go,” Derek grumbled.

  Liz's eyes filled as she screeched back her chair. Tori retreated into stumbling apologies again. Simon grabbed Liz's glass before she knocked it flying. Peter hunched over hi
s game. Derek took advantage of the chaos to scoop up the last of the casserole.

  The kitchen door flew open and Mrs. Talbot appeared, but her words were beat back by the cacophony.

  Rae appeared in the other doorway holding a basket of dirty laundry.

  “Last call,” she mouthed. “Any more?”

  No one else noticed, much less heard her. I glanced around, and realized with all the commotion no one would notice if I left. So I did.

  They knew. Everyone knew.

  I was a freak. A crazy girl who saw ghosts. I belonged here.

  Lunch churned in my stomach. I hurried up the stairs, thinking of my bed with its thin mattress that smelled of chemical vanilla, suddenly so inviting. Pull the blinds down, curl up under the covers with my iPod, and try to forget—

  “Can I help you, Chloe?”

  Two steps from the top, I stopped and turned to see Miss Van Dop below.

  “I—I was just going to lie down for a minute. My head hurts and—”

  “Then come and get some Tylenol. ”

  “I—I'm kind of tired. I don't have classes, so I thought—”

  “Come down, Chloe. ”

  She waited until I was almost there then said, “At Lyle House, bedrooms are for sleeping. ”

  “ I—"

  “I know you're probably tired and feeling overwhelmed, but you need activity and interaction, not isolation. Rae's getting a head start on the laundry before afternoon classes. If you've finished lunch, you can go help her. ”

  I braced myself as I opened the basement door, expecting a descent down creaky wooden steps into a dark, damp basement, the kind of place I hated. Instead, I saw gleaming stairs, the passage brightly lit, the walls painted pale green with a flowery border. For the first time that day, I was glad of the too-?bright cheeriness.

  The laundry room had a tile floor, an old recliner, a washer and dryer, and a bunch of cupboards and shelves. Zero “old basement” creep factor.

  The washing machine was running, but there was no sign of Rae.

  I looked across the room, toward a closed door. As I walked to it, I picked up an acrid smell.

  Smoke?

  If Rae was smoking down here, I wasn't going to be the one to catch her. I turned to go back upstairs, and saw Rae squeezed between two towers of shelves.

  Her lips formed a silent oath as she shook her hand, putting out a match. I looked for a cigarette. There wasn't one—just the smoldering match.

  I heard Liz's voice again: She has this “thing” for fire.

  My reaction must have shown because Rae jumped forward, getting between me and the door, hands flying up.

  “No, no, it's not like that. I wasn't going to do anything. I don't—” She slowed, seeing she had my attention. “I don't start fires. They wouldn't let me stay here if I did. Ask anyone. I just like fire. ”

  “Oh. ”

  She noticed me staring at the matchbook and pocketed it.

  “I, uh, noticed you didn't get lunch,” I said. “Can I bring you something?”

  Her face brightened. “Thanks. But I'll grab an apple before class. I use any excuse to avoid eating with Queen Victoria. You saw what she's like. With me, it's food. If I take a big helping or seconds or dessert, she gets her jabs in. ”

  I must have looked confused, because she waved a hand down her body.

  “Yes, I could stand to lose a few pounds, but I don't need her as my personal dietitian. ” She moved to a pile of unsorted laundry. “My advice? Steer clear of her. She's like these monsters I saw in an old sci-?fi film, vampires from space, only they didn't drink blood, they sucked out all your energy. ”

  “Lifeforce. Tobe Hooper. Psychic vampires. ”

  She grinned, showing a crooked canine. “Psychic vampires. I'll have to remember that one. ”

  Earlier I'd thought I didn't belong here because I didn't feel crazy. I bet none of them did either. Maybe mental illness was like stuttering. I'd spent my life trying to convince people that just because I stammered didn't mean there was anything else wrong with me. I just had a problem that I was working hard to overcome.

  Like seeing people who weren't there.

  Like being attracted to fire.

  It didn't mean you were schizo or anything.

  The sooner I got over myself, the better off I'd be at Lyle House. The sooner I'd get better… and get out.

  I looked at the piles of laundry. “Can I help?”

  She showed me how—another thing I'd never done. Even at camp, someone did it for us.

  After a few minutes of working together, she said, “Does it make sense to you?”

  “What?”

  “Putting a girl in a place like this because she likes fire. ”

  “Well, if that's all. . . ”

  “There's more, but it's small stuff, related to the fire thing. Nothing dangerous. I don't hurt myself or anyone else. ”

  She returned to her sorting.

  “Do you like manga?” she asked after a minute. “Anime?”

  “Anime's cool. I'm not really into it, but I like Japanese movies, animated or not. ”

  “Well, I'm into it. I watch the shows, read the books, chat on the boards, and all that. But this girl I know, she's completely into it. She spends most of her allowance on the books and DVDs. She can recite dialogue from them. ” She caught my gaze. “So would you say she belongs here?”

  “No. Most kids are that way about something, right? With me, it's movies. Like knowing who directed a sci-?fi movie made before I was born. ”
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