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Lila shortcuts, p.2
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       Lila Shortcuts, p.2

           Sarah Alderson
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  ‘What guy?’ I stammer.

  ‘The guy who looks like he eats teenage girls for breakfast and who’s now bawling his eyes out. What did you do? Tell him his Harley got repossessed? Diss his tattoos?’

  My breathing is suddenly all over the place. ‘Nothing. I didn’t say anything to him.’

  He narrows his eyes at me, not buying it for a second, then he cocks his head to one side, and a slow and easy smile spreads across his face.

  ‘If I talk to you are you going to make me cry too?’ he asks, taking a step nearer.

  I consider him. My throat is so dry that when I answer it sounds like sandpaper rasping against brick. ‘Depends,’ I tell him.

  ‘OK,’ he answers, nodding, weighing it up. ‘I’ll take the risk.’ He holds out his hand.

  ‘Ryder,’ he says. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

  I draw in a deep breath. I hate this part. I don’t do touching and I’m already feeling battered blue by all the aura whacking I’ve just endured. But the alternative is looking rude. So I clear my throat. ‘Amber,’ I say. And then, I reach out, bracing myself, and take his hand.

  People talk about sparks flying, about electricity jolting and I know better than most that those things are true. When two auras collide, in good ways and bad, sparks can fly. But this is different. There are no sparks flying when Ryder and I shake hands. There are no electricity jolts. Instead, the feeling is akin to diving into an ice-cold river. Instantly I’m swept up in a rushing eddy, and then whipped away on a wild current. It’s total surrender. No fight. Just pure adrenaline thrill ride.

  When Ryder lets go of my hand I gasp like I’ve just surfaced into blinding sunlight. I blink at him. He stares back at me with a queer expression on his face.

  ‘You OK?’ he asks.

  ‘I . . . err . . . yeah, I’m fine.’ Clearly, he didn’t feel anything quite so dramatic as half-drowning in arctic river rapids when he shook my hand. What was that?

  ‘You sure?’ he asks. ‘You look a bit . . . breathless.’

  ‘Yeah, I just . . .’ I frown at him then smile. ‘I’m fine.’

  ‘So you like The Gnarly Surs then?’ he asks me now, his eyes glinting in amusement.

  ‘As much as I like hairy biker guys sporting Aryan Nation tattoos.’

  As though on cue the door bangs open and said hairy biker guy sporting racist tattoos comes bursting out. His eyes – bloodshot and red-rimmed – light on me and he snarls. But Ryder steps calmly between us, smiling at the man as though he’s his long-lost brother. I take a breath, wondering if I’ve got enough energy to try and blast him again – but before I can try, I watch Ryder lay his hand on the guy’s bicep. My eyes pop and my voice gets stuck in my throat. What are you doing? I want to yell. Are you insane?

  ‘Hey pal, you looking for something?’ Ryder asks.

  The guy switches his attention to Ryder and for a split second looks like he’s about to rip his face off with his bare teeth, but then, as I watch, the sneer vanishes, replaced with the kind of blank expression you might see on someone who’s taken one too many Valium. He blinks at Ryder, frowns, then shakes his head, befuddled.

  ‘No,’ the guy says, scanning the alley, his eyes glancing over me before coming to rest back on Ryder. ‘I just . . .’ He shakes his head one more time, clearly bewildered.

  Ryder drops his hand from the guy’s arm and the guy turns around and shuffles back inside. The door bangs shut behind him, but I can’t tear my eyes off Ryder. What the hell just happened?

  Ryder turns back to face me, smiling innocently.‘This is a really classy establishment. You hang out here often?’

  That’s when I remember Nancy. ‘Oh god, my friend!’ I gasp. ‘I’ve got to go. She’ll be worrying.’

  Ryder moves fast, blocking my path to the door. ‘You’re not going back in there. I’ll find her for you.’

  I hesitate, scanning him, immediately suspicious. But he’s clean. His aura’s pristine. No lies. I’m so surprised that I wonder if Nancy was right about me being a cynic. But I’d rather be a cynic, I tell myself, than be found lying dead in an alley having succumbed to southern charm and a smile. Serial killers come in many forms after all.

  ‘OK,’ I finally tell him, and then I describe Nancy to him.

  ‘Oh yeah, I remember seeing her – dressed like Nikita in the episode she escapes from the Russian gulag?’

  ‘Yeah, that’s the one,’ I say, smiling.

  ‘Wait right here. I’ll be back in a minute,’ he says. ‘And if any of those biker guys show up while I’m gone, run. Don’t start tossing insults.’

  Before I can say anything else he vanishes back inside. I stand in the alley, wrapping my arms around myself and stare after him – or more precisely I stare in wonder at the trail of light he’s left floating in his wake.

  Chapter Four

  ‘There you are!’ Nancy comes flying at me across the alley, the boom boom of music acting as rocket fuel to her feet. She hurls herself at me. ‘What happened to you? I was dancing and then I looked around and you were gone and there was a hysterically crying biker sitting on the ground.’

  ‘I just went to get some air.’

  ‘Some air, huh?’ she asks, cutting her eyes, oh-so subtly, in Ryder’s direction. He stands amused a few feet away, his gaze fixed on me.

  ‘I came to her rescue,’ he says.

  ‘I didn’t need rescuing,’ I shoot back.

  He shrugs, his eyes so lazy-lidded he looks like he just woke up. Nancy stares between us – little pink stars blossoming all around her.

  An inclination of the head. ‘So, we going, then?’ Ryder asks me.

  I frown at him. ‘Where to?’

  ‘You agreed to come on a date with me if I went and found your friend.’

  I open my mouth to protest that I did no such thing but the look of hope on his face and the way he’s holding my gaze with such intensity makes me close it again. There’s also the small but freaky matter of the chandelier aura and needing to figure out what it might mean. And what the hell he just did to that biker.

  ‘So shall we go?’ he asks.

  Nancy has been observing this with utter glee and now hugs me, whispering in my ear, ‘Go, go, go. And tell me all about it in the morning.’

  ‘I’m not leaving you here,’ I protest.

  ‘I’m going home anyway. The Gnarly Surs finished their set and the next band sucks.’ She grins. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow at work, OK?’

  We walk Nancy to her car and watch her drive off, then I turn to Ryder – awkwardly. He’s smiling at me – a cat that got the cream smile – and though I try to ignore it and I’m not even touching him, I feel the current snapping at me, urging me to jump right in.

  Chapter Five

  ‘In-N-Out burger?’ I say, glancing across at Ryder. ‘This is where you’re taking me on our first date?’

  He pulls on the handbrake and stares at me. He has hazel-coloured eyes. Did I mention this? ‘Our first date?’ he says, smirking. ‘That would suggest there are going to be more to come.’

  I blush. But thankfully he doesn’t see. He’s already out of the car, walking around the tennis-court sized bonnet to my side and opening the door for me.

  The ancient Chevy stands out among the newer Fords and Toyotas in the lot. It was his grandfather’s and inside it smells of wet dog and surfboard wax. On account of the fact he inherited his grandfather’s dog along with the car and that he likes to surf, as I discovered on the way over here.

  We walk inside and I’m pleased to discover that In-N-Out burger is fairly deserted at this time of night. There’s just us, a couple of truckers, a few kids too young-looking to get into any bars and some bored-looking servers.

  We order and take our trays over to one of the tables by the window.

  ‘You grew up round here?’ Ryder asks as we dig in.

  ‘Just up the coast, actually. We moved here a few years ago.’ I keep going in response to his questioning look. ‘My mum s
tarted dating some guy from round here.’

  ‘You don’t like him?’ Ryder asks, dunking a fry in a pool of ketchup.

  I pause. He’s astute. I don’t like any of my mum’s boyfriends. The ability to detect lies (and general unsavouriness) skipped a generation, so my mum judges potential boyfriend’s characters on the make of truck they drive and whether they have a hyphen in their first name. Or so it seems, judging from Billy-Bob, A-Jay and Ricky-Ray, all of whom have driven white Ford pick-ups, and none of whom have stuck around for longer than it takes for milk to curdle.

  ‘What about you?’ I ask, not wanting to get drawn into a conversation about my mum, who’s currently hooked up with a guy called Archie-Lee, owner of the local trailer park. ‘What drew you to this place?’

  He slurps his milkshake. ‘Savannah has its limitations.’

  ‘Admit it,’ I say. ‘You’re a Gnarly Surs groupie. You follow them across the country.’

  He laughs, and my stomach flips as a cotton candy cloud blooms in the air over him. Pink is not just the colour of princesses. It’s also the colour of lust and love. The two are hard to tell apart, hence my wariness around members of the opposite sex. But with Ryder I note my usual wariness is strangely absent.

  ‘Yeah, you got me,’ he says. ‘That’s why I’m here.’

  Just then his eyes flick behind my head to the door and I watch as all the blood drains from his face. The cotton candy bloom withers away, and the air around him becomes concrete grey. I spin around.

  Two guys have strolled into the restaurant. The rays bursting off them make the biker crew back at The Majestic seem like a bunch of kids high on ice-cream. Thunder clouds of roiling black and grey swim and pulse around them.

  There are several Latino gangs in Oxnard up the road who like to cruise town – I guess as some form of pissing contest with the local biker crews. One quick glance at these guys (and a glance is all you’d want to give them) and it’s clear that the In-N-Out Burger is now attracting more unsavoury types than my mother.

  I turn back to Ryder. He’s staring at the guys, his hands fisted on the table, his shoulders bunched tight. The easy grin has fallen away and been replaced with grimly pursed lips. The chandelier spectacular above him now emits lightning strikes of red.

  My body starts tingling as though an electrical storm of Marvel Comic proportions is whirling in the atmosphere above In-N-Out Burger. Footsteps. The hairs bristle on the back of my neck. Out the corner of my eye I see a black boot come to a stop right by our table.

  ‘Scoot over.’

  My heart slams into my mouth and wedges there, beating thickly against my tongue. I glance up at the guy who’s stopped by our table. He’s talking to me. I look at Ryder whose jaw is clenched tight. Flames crackle in the air above him.

  Suddenly I’m being shoved further into the booth as the guy slides in beside me. I don’t take much persuasion. I edge as far away as I can, snatching a look at him, trying to gauge what’s going on and if we’re about to die. I spot one of the servers staring at us, gormless, eyes wide as burger patties. I try to urge him silently to call the cops but he just stares blankly at us.

  Ryder keeps his gaze firmly fixed on the guy who’s sat down beside me, and who’s now shaking salt over my fries. The other guy stands blocking Ryder’s exit.

  ‘Where you been hiding, Ryder?’ the man asks. ‘We’ve been looking all over for you.’

  Ryder says nothing. What the hell is going on? How do they know his name? I glance at the guy next to me. He’s got dark hair, piercing black eyes and a five o’clock shadow that looks permanent. He’s wearing dark jeans and a white shirt and his buddy is dressed similarly, his shirt clinging to both his barrel chest and other suspicious concealed weapon-shaped bulges.

  Ryder slouches back in his seat. ‘I’ve been around,’ he says, casual as anything. Only, I can tell he’s putting it on because his aura shows his fear. His fear is overcoming his anger, being swamped by it.

  ‘Busy chasing skirt by the looks of things,’ the man says, his eyes flicking in my direction. He smiles approvingly as he tosses fries into his mouth. ‘I can see why you’d be distracted.’

  I would squirm but I can’t. I’m frozen in my seat. Staring at the guy. I glance at Ryder. Then back at the guy. And suddenly my heart is pounding like an anvil against rock. Because the guy beside me has an aura identical to Ryder’s. I didn’t see the chandelier lights before because they were masked by thunderclouds. His aura is slightly more tarnished than Ryder’s and darkness filters around it, but it’s still there.

  ‘Leave her out of it,’ Ryder suddenly growls, no longer slouching but leaning across the table, his eyes flashing furiously.

  Holding my breath and taking advantage of the distraction, I inch my knee across under the table until it nudges the guy’s thigh. Instantly I jerk back, my body resonating as though I’ve run headlong into an iron wall.

  The guy doesn’t appear to have noticed. ‘Let’s go,’ he tells Ryder, finishing up my fries and wiping his hands on a napkin. ‘We’ve got work to do.’

  What kind of work is he talking about? I look between them trying to figure out what I can do to diffuse the situation. But before I can even try to make two grown men cry, Ryder moves – a cobra strike – grabbing for the guy’s wrist across the table. But he’s not fast enough. The guy snatches his hand away, shaking his head. ‘A-a-ah.’

  Ryder freezes. My gaze drops to the man blocking him in. He’s pressing a gun against Ryder’s side.

  Without even thinking about it I throw everything I’ve got, everything I’m feeling, at the guy with the gun – anger, outrage and fear melding into a fearsome barrage that pounds him like a battering ram. The gun falls limply to his side. All three hundred pounds of him stares at Ryder wide-eyed, as though Ryder just grew horns and a tail. Then he turns on his heel and, with a little whimper and a yelp, goes screaming out of the restaurant.

  The man beside me stares slack-jawed after him, before whipping his head back to Ryder. ‘Interesting,’ is all he says, appraising Ryder with a small smile, before pulling himself together and standing brusquely.

  Ryder is still staring at the door, blinking in astonishment. Then his expression clears and his head snaps towards me, understanding rushing over his face. Has he guessed? Does he know that I was the cause of that?

  ‘You coming, Ryder?’ the man asks.

  Ryder nods and gets up from the table, shooting me an apologetic look. ‘Yeah, I’m coming,’ he says and starts following the man to the door.

  I’m too stunned to do anything but watch through the window as Ryder walks with the guy across the lot and climbs into a Mercedes. The engine starts and the three of them go speeding out of the lot. I realise only then that I’m shaking. The storm clouds have passed but my skin still prickles with static charge.

  Someone clears their throat beside me, making me jump.

  ‘Do you want me to, like, call the police or something?’

  I look up. The server is standing by my table, his Adam’s apple bobbing violently up and down in his throat.

  Ignoring him, I stagger to my feet, throw a few dollars on the table, and run outside.

  Chapter Six

  ‘So he arrived in town six weeks ago. He surfs, has an athritic dog called RJ and is wise to the In-N-Out ways of ordering, but you don’t know how old he is, what his last name is or whether or not he’s a good kisser.’ Nancy shakes her head at me in disgust, though from the star-busts above her head I can tell excitement outweighs her disappointment.

  I hesitate. I don’t lie, remember? But equally I can’t tell her the truth about what happened. I mean, what’s there to say anyway? We were having a great time when suddenly two guys with guns burst in and escorted him off the premises, oh, and by the way, they all had identical auras!

  Nancy is my only friend. I don’t want to be friendless.

  ‘Next time I’ll take my thumbscrews and a Nancy approved list of questions to grill him wi
th,’ I tell her. Not that there’s likely to be a next time, I think to myself.

  ‘Look, I have to go,’ Nancy says, glancing at the clock. ‘I have to babysit my cousin, but later, I want all the details, OK?’

  She tosses me the keys to the store, grabs her jacket and goes. Leaving me to sort through a pile of new stock and all my confounding thoughts.

  The day is long. Summer break means listless teenagers coming into the store, trying on everything, taking photos of themselves and then leaving without having bought anything or having bothered to rehang the clothes.

  And the whole time I’m barely functioning because I’m worried sick about Ryder (a boy I hardly know, I remind myself) and what grisly things might have happened to him. I’ve run a million scenarios through my head trying to figure out who those guys were and what they wanted, and spent several useless hours wishing my grandma was still alive so I could fire questions at her about what I saw. What was that? I stare in the mirror more than a few times trying to figure out what it all might mean and end up shaking my head at my reflection . . . it’s too improbable.

  I keep glancing at my phone and wondering whether I should have called the police. It’s just . . . I’m known to the police. I’ve reported a few things to them (including the Sunday School teacher guy and my mum’s boyfriend Ricky-Ray who had an aura more filthy than a sewer rat’s and who did eventually get busted for dealing meth) and every time I’ve been met with a sceptical eyebrow and, on the last occasion, with a stern warning to stop wasting police time.

  The worst thing is, I have no idea of how to contact him. I stuck a note under his windshield wiper telling him where I worked in case he wanted to find me. I wasn’t about to give him my address, which this month is the second to last trailer on the south side of the Purple Sky Trailer Park. Every time the door of the shop dings my head flies up, but so far, he’s not made an appearance. I decide that after work I’m going to head back to the burger place and see if his car is still in the lot. If it is, then I’m going to call the police.

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