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In the end, their flayed skin really did look like ribbons. . . .

Eager for distraction, I turned to Mel, but she had her earbuds in, absently singing an angry female rock song. She loved to sing; her voice sounded like two cats in heat sparring in a traffic cone.

With the right makeup and lighting, her face looked stunning, all haughty cheekbones and flawless skin. Right now, she was cute, with her mouth a touch too big, her eyes a bit wide, her expressions comical instead of come-hither.

We’d been best friends ever since kindergarten, when a little punk kid had kicked my shins. Mel had swooped in to save the day. Lisping through her missing front teeth, she’d demanded, “Wath he mething with you?”

I’d nodded up at her, sensing a sympathetic hug on the way and eager for it. But she’d marched off and handed that boy his ass.

Now she leaned up on her elbows, removing her earbuds with a frown. “Okay, nobody’s ever accused me of being perceptive or anything, but even I can feel that Cajun staring at you.”

He had been at it for a day and a half. “Imagine having three classes with him.” English, history, and earth sciences. Not to mention that Jackson and I were practically locker mates.

“And homeroom.” Mel was still pissed that she and I weren’t together, that I’d been exiled from all my friends.

But hey, I’d scored both Jackson and Clotile Declouet, the Cajun girl.

I sat up, twisting my hair into a knot, sneaking a glance to my side. Yet again, I found myself in his sight line. He was sitting atop a metal table, scuffed biker boots on the attached bench, with his friends gathered around him.

Jackson had his elbows on his knees and his gaze fixed in my direction, even as he spoke French with the others. Occasionally Clotile leaned over to murmur to him.

“You think she’s his girlfriend?” I asked, immediately regretting it when Mel shaded her eyes to blatantly study them.

“Normally, I’d say they were perfect for each other.”

Klassy, meet Good-Natured.

“But if they’re together, then why does he keep staring at you? Like he hasn’t deposited enough mental images into his spank bank by now?”

“That in no way makes me feel better about this situation, Mel.”

“What are they talking about?” She’d been delighted that I was uncovering all kinds of dirt on our enchanting new students.

Though I’d never considered myself a big eavesdropper, it wasn’t like I could turn off my French, and the Cajuns kept talking in front of me, completely unguarded. “They’re debating whether to pawn their school-issue laptops.”

Mel snorted, then grew serious. “How much do you think they’d go for . . . ?”

In homeroom yesterday, when a TA had passed out the computers, Clotile and Jack had stared in astonishment; then Clotile had smoothed her fingers over hers, wistfully murmuring, “Quel une chose jolie”—such a pretty thing. As if it was the most precious possession she’d ever owned.

With an involuntary pang, I’d realized it probably was. Their town was basically a big swamp filled with leaky-roofed shacks, many without power.

As mind-boggling as it seemed to me, these kids wouldn’t have computers—much less their own computers. When I’d comprehended how hard it must be for her to adjust to this new school, I’d caught her eye and mouthed, Hi, with a smile.

She’d frowned over her shoulder, then at Jack—who’d canted his head with puzzlement. . . .

“Well, what’s the verdict?” Mel asked. “Pawn or not?”

“Lionel and Gaston plan to cash in tout de suite. Clotile and Tee-Bo are going to hold. Jackson has parole concerns.”

“I knew the rumors about him were true!”

When they’d eventually finished drinking/smoking and meandered off, Mel’s attention focused on Spencer. “He really likes me. I can tell.”

“Uh-huh, sure thing.” I’d asked Brand yet again to set them up, even if just on a friends double.

“I am a sure thing,” Mel said. “Why wouldn’t Spence like me?”

Sometimes when she said stuff like that, I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.

“So what are you going to do about Brandon’s hymen safari?”

“I have no idea.” I’m sure everyone in school was wondering—I had a sixteenth birthday coming up and an older, much more experienced boyfriend.

As Mel had summed up my predicament, “Once a racehorse learns how to run, you can’t expect to keep him hobbled for long.”

I watched Brand laughing with some other guys, his face flushed against his white button-down. He looked utterly gorgeous.

And yet I just didn’t feel this grand passion to experience sex with Brand, no overwhelming curiosity about the deed either. Though I felt meh about the whole subject, I didn’t want to lose him.

It has to happen sometime. “I just don’t like being pressured.” Even if I’d made that promise to begin with. But I’d been desperate to keep him faithful all summer! “I . . . I’ll think about it later,” I trailed off in a defeated tone, feeling even more exhausted.

“What’s up with you? You usually have tons of energy.”

I shrugged, unable to tell her that my pills left me drained.

“If you’re going to be lame, I’m going to go creep on Spencer.”

“Have fun,” I muttered. “No biting. Wake me before the bell.”

She skulked off, and soon enough I heard her laughing theatrically at one of Spencer’s jokes.

But I couldn’t drift off, still feeling like I was being watched. I scanned the area again. Everyone was going about their lunch as usual.

I made myself close my eyes. Stop being paranoid, Evie. Enjoy this place, the blooms. . . .

Their scent reminded me of my Gran’s beloved rose garden at Haven. She’d planted it beneath one of the windmill water pumps, tended it religiously before her breakdown.

I didn’t remember a lot about my grandmother, but since I’d returned home, I’d been thinking about her more and more. I was eight the last time I’d seen her. On a sweltering Louisiana summer day, she’d told me we were going to get ice cream. I remembered thinking it must be the best ice cream in the state, because we drove and drove. . . .

I frowned. The scent of roses was growing stronger, overwhelming. Was someone holding one in front of my face? Was it Brand?

I peeked open my eyes, blinked in confusion. Two rose stalks had stretched toward me, delicate blooms on either side of my head. As I watched, dumbstruck, they inched closer to my face, to touch my cheeks.

Dewy, soft petals were caressing me as my mind flipped over and I worked up a scream—

“Ahhh!” I scrambled to my feet.

They retracted just as quickly. As if in fright—of me.

I glanced up. Saw students staring at me. Mel shot me a quizzical look.

“Th-there was . . . a bee!” Oh, God, oh, God! I snatched up my purse and rushed inside, heading for the bathroom.

In the hall, sounds seemed muffled. I passed people without speaking to them, ignoring anyone who approached me.

When I reached the sink, I splashed my face with water over and over. Get hold of yourself. Reject the delusion.

Was I getting sick again? I’d thought I was cured!

Leaning forward, I studied my face in the mirror. I barely recognized myself. But I didn’t look crazy; I looked . . . scared. Am I going to lose everything?

I gripped the edges of the sink. Maybe I’d fallen asleep and had been experiencing another weird dream?

Yes! That was it, I’d simply dozed off. My medicine prevented delusions. I hadn’t had one in Atlanta. Not a single episode.

This made sense. After all, I hadn’t experienced my usual hallucination symptoms. Last spring, whenever I’d been vision-bound, I’d felt a bubbly sensation in my head and nose, as if I’d drunk a carbonated soda too fast—

“What the hell, Greene?” Mel charged in. “You’re scared of bees now?”

I shrugged, hating to lie to her. Would she notice my shaking?

“You have been acting so weird since you got back from Hotlanta. Even slooowwwer on the uptake than you were last spring. Nervouser, too.” Mel’s eyes widened. “Oh, I get it. Did your friends at deportment school learn you good about high-dollar drugs?”

I rolled my eyes.

“I’m serious. So help me God, if you are doing drugs”—Mel pointed to the ceiling—“without me, there will be consequences, Evie Greene!”

“I swear to you that I’m not doing illicit drugs.”

“Oh.” She backed down, appeased. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine now. I fell asleep, and when I woke up there was a bee right on my face.” The lie tasted like chalk in my mouth.

“Oh, shit! Why didn’t you say so? I was about to schedule a carefrontation with you.”

“I don’t . . . just a bee . . .” I trailed off because ivy was climbing through the raised window behind Mel. Growing before my eyes, it began to slither down the wall.

Like a long green snake—

The bell rang. The ivy retreated, taking with it a big chunk of my sanity.

“I’ll go get our things,” Mel said. “Meet you at your locker.” But at the door, she turned back. “Hey, buck up. You look like somebody died.” As I tried to move my lips in a response, she breezed out the door.

Evie Greene, version 1.0, RIP.

Chapter 4

DAY 4 B.F.

As I sat waiting for Mr. Broussard’s history class to start, I sketched in my contraband drawing journal and tried to ignore Jackson, sitting a couple of rows behind me.

Easier said than done. Everything about him seemed to demand my attention. Especially since he and that boy Gaston had started talking about girls—namely Jackson’s many lady friends, his gaiennes.

So in the Basin, Jackson was a player? You’re in a different league now, Cajun.

I resumed drawing my latest nightmare. Three out of the last three nights, I’d dreamed of the red witch’s gruesome killings.

Drawing was not something I did for fun, but more a compulsion—as if I feared a bad memory had to mark a page or it would stain my brain.

As my thoughts drifted, my pencil began to move. I flicked my wrist for slashing lines, slowly shading elsewhere, and the witch’s latest victim took shape—a man hanging upside down from an oak limb, trapped in thorny vines.

Unlike the delicate, shy ivy I’d encountered in the bathroom yesterday, the ones that bound him were thicker, barbed lashes that coiled around him like an anaconda. And the witch controlled them, making them squeeze tighter each time the man released a breath.

Those thorns bit into his flesh, a thousand greedy fangs. I painstakingly carved edges as I darkened those barbs, sharpening them.

The witch forced the vines to constrict, tighter, tighter, until his bones cracked—and blood poured.

She wrung it from that man like water from a rag. . . .

Cracking, squeezing. He had no breath to scream. One of his eyeballs burst from its socket, tethered to his skull by veins. As I sketched that, I wondered if he could still see out of it.

With drawings like this, it was easy to see why my journal had been my downfall before.

When I’d first complained of tingling sensations in my head and blurred vision, Mom had taken me to a slew of doctors for CT scans and tests, all negative. Throughout it all, I’d been able to disguise from everyone how bad the hallucinations had been. Then Mom had discovered my journal.

I’d trusted her, coming clean about my apocalyptic delusions. Big mistake.

After gaping in horror at page after page—of ash and devastation, of slimy bogeymen teeming among blackened ruins—she’d begun connecting the dots. “Don’t you understand, Evie? Your hallucinations are things that your grandmother taught you when you were little. Those doomsday kooks you see on the street? She’s not much different from them! Looking back, I can see that she . . . she indoctrinated you with these beliefs. I know, because she tried to do it to me!”

I’d been sunk. You can deny being insane all you want, but when a parent has hard copies of your crazy on file—and you’ve got a family history of mental illness—you’re screwed.

Mom had yanked me out of my sophomore year a couple of weeks early, then driven me to CLC. The docs there had stuck me in the same track they used for kids rescued from cults.

My deprogramming had started with a single question: “Evie, do you understand why you must reject your grandmother’s teachings . . . ?”

I’d given that doc an answer, slurring from the mind-altering meds they’d pumped into me. But I couldn’t quite recall my reply—

Gaston distracted me again, asking Jackson about his latest doe tag. Cajun for scoring?

I sneaked a glance at Jackson over my shoulder. On his desk, he had only the history text, a few sheets of loose-leaf paper, and a single pencil clutched in his big, taped fist. His expression was smug as he replied, “Embrasser et raconter? Jamais.” Kiss and tell? Never.

I gazed heavenward with irritation, then turned back to my journal, finishing another detail on my sketch—the man’s other eyeball succumbing to the pressure, dangling beside the first.

But Gaston’s next question drew my attention once more. “T’aimes l’une de ces filles?”

Did Jackson like any of the girls here?

His deep-voiced answer: “Une fille, peut-etre.” One, maybe.

Again I felt his eyes on me. Earlier Mel had asked, “Does he really think he’s got a shot at you?”

I kind of believed he really did.

Yesterday, I’d decided to give him a wide berth. Not so easily done. Unlike most boys, Jackson returned to his locker after every class. To be fair, his stops could’ve been for flask refills.

But sometimes he would take a drink, then turn to me with his lips parted, like he was about to ask me something.

Tags: Kresley Cole The Arcana Chronicles Book Series