So far, I think this is my favorite chapter. I really feel like Keegan is becoming likeable, and I’m starting to see the personalities of each party coming to life!
My mom dropped me off at school the next morning, and my first few classes went by in a blur. Adam and Megan noticed how nervous I was and tried to joke me out of it, but by lunch they had both given up. I admitted to Megan that I had agreed to meet with my Aunt and Lila after school, and her look of concern didn’t make me feel any better about my decision.
She met me in the hall after fifth period, American History, and I could tell by looking at her that she was nervous for me. “I’m sure it will be fine,” she said, her voice not quite convincing me. “Your aunt Erin is pretty cool, and I know that everyone wants this thing between you and Lila worked out. Really, it’s Lila who’s the problem here, so this meeting will be three against one.”
I shook my head as I dumped my books into my locker and pulled out the last textbook I would need for the day. “I don’t know about that,” I muttered as we walked toward our biology class. “I’m not sure about my Aunt Erin. I’ve never met her, and my mother only started talking about her in any detail this past week.”
We sat down and opened our books, and I sighed. “I’m just tired, Megan,” I admitted. “I want all of this to be over with, and I want to move on with my life. I just want to be a normal kid and have normal problems, you know?”
Megan looked at me, and the sympathy in her eyes was almost overwhelming. “Normal,” she repeated quietly. “You want to be normal?” She smiled at me sadly when I nodded and then shifted her eyes toward the window overlooking the parking lot of the school. “That isn’t possible anymore. There is no such thing as normal when you’re a teenager, is there?” With a sigh, she slowly twirled a stand of her dark brown hair around her finger. “I almost don’t even remember what it’s like,” she murmured. “The days of being innocent and being free to choose your own future seem like they happened a lifetime ago, and the feelings I had before knowing what I know now are impossible to remember.” She continued to stare out the window, and I could feel my skin start to prickle. Even as the other kids began streaming into the classroom, Megan sat quietly, her eyes shadowed as her private memories whirled their way through her mind. I wanted to ask what she meant, but I didn’t want to interrupt her thoughts, I held my breath in the hopes she might give me some of the answers I had been looking for. “There’s so much here,” she whispered, “and so much more to know. It just keeps going on and on, and we have to follow the path that’s been drawn for us since before we were even born. We don’t have the same choices as other kids, and that’s okay, but sometimes I wish…” her voice trailed of and she blinked, her eyes coming back into focus. “Sorry,” she said smiling sheepishly. “I guess I’m not immune to the weirdness around here, am I?”
I swallowed and stared at her, my heart thumping. “You know,” I said, my voice low. “You are part of these secrets, but you’re not going to tell me either, are you?” I could hear the accusing tone in my words, but I was so tired that I didn’t even try to hide it. “This town is crazy,” I muttered as our teacher finished writing the steps of a scientific experiment on the whiteboard
Megan looked at me sadly. “You have no idea,” she whispered as Mr. Harrison began his lecture. “You’re just lucky you’ve had so much normalcy in your life up until now.”
I tapped my pencil on my notebook and stared out the window, completely frustrated by Megan’s behavior. I had no idea what she was talking about, and I was disappointed she knew at least some of what I wanted to know, and she was obviously refusing to tell me anything. I could feel my anger starting to rise as I thought about everything that had happened to me since I got to Harborville, and I bit my lip to keep from grabbing my books and storming from the classroom. I took a deep breath in an effort to calm myself, but my heart started racing and beads of sweat started to form along my hairline as my anger continued to grow stronger.
Suddenly, Megan’s hand wrapped around my wrist. “Keegan,” she hissed. “Calm down, would you? Everyone is starting at you.”
I blinked in surprise and turned around in my seat. Mr. Harrison was holding a beaker full of liquid in midair and stood looking at me with an expression of concern while the other students were either staring at me with wide eyes or doing their best not look at me at all. I realized there was not a sound in the room other than the quiet hum of the aquarium filters, and I felt a blush start climbing my cheeks.
I looked at Megan and swallowed. “Did I miss a question or something?”
Megan shook her head. “No,” she said weakly, dropping her hand. “Not exactly.”
My gaze traveled around the room, but no one moved. I cleared my throat and smiled apologetically at Mr. Harrison in hopes he would just continue with the lesson, but he didn’t return my smile or say anything to reprimand me either. I shot a look at Megan, and she was eyeing me with what looked like anticipation.
“What?” I hissed. I shot another look around the room and then focused on her bright blue eyes. “What happened?”
Megan’s shoulders tensed and she shifted her eyes to the notebook in my hand. I slowly followed her gaze, and my fingers grew cold with fear when I saw what I was holding. With a gasp, I dropped the black-edged book on the table and my eyes grew wide as the unmistakable smell of burned paper registered in my brain. “What the hell?” I stared at the notebook in horror, and I pushed my chair back from the table with trembling legs.
Megan cleared her throat. “It’s okay, Keegan,” she said, her voice low. “Nothing is damaged, so it’s okay.”
I stared at her, completely bewildered. “It’s okay?” I repeated. “A notebook catching fire in my hands is okay?” I felt tears start to build up behind my eyelids, and I blinked to keep them from spilling down my cheeks. “Megan, nothing is okay. Nothing has been okay since I got here!”
Megan looked at me for a moment, and then she grabbed her books off the table. “Pack up your stuff, Keegan,” she said as she stood up. “I think it’s time we go talk to your Grandmother.”
Stunned, I continued to sit in my chair. “We can’t just walk out,” I said, but even as the words left my mouth, I knew she was right. Whatever had just happened was beyond anything I could explain, and I was pretty sure that staying in school for the rest of the day was not an option.
Megan sighed and grabbed my books along with the singed notebook. “Mr. Harrison,” she said as she grabbed my elbow and pulled me to my feet. “I need to take Keegan home now. We’ll sign out at the front office.”
I watched Mr. Harrison nod slowly, and he cleared his throat. “Yes, I think that’s a good idea, Ms. Murphy.” He paused and turned his eyes to me, and I almost cried when I saw the look of pity in their depths. “Feel better, Ms. Thompson,” he said softly. “I hope to see you back in class again… When you’re up to it, of course.”
I nodded and allowed Megan to guide me out of the classroom and down the hall without a word. She kept one hand on my elbow and steered me toward the main office, but she remained silent until we got to the doorway. “Keegan,” she said, her eyes focused somewhere above my head. “This isn’t a big deal. It really isn’t, so relax. I’m going to take you to your Grandmother since I know your mom is at work, and I’ll have the secretary get in touch with Adam so he can drive us.”
I nodded meekly and sniffed back the tears that I hadn’t even known were there. She looked at me then and smiled gently, and I took a deep breath to try to get control over my emotions. I was willing to do whatever Megan said, because I didn’t trust myself at all. I had no idea what had happened or why, and I was scared.
Megan pushed the door to the office open and gently pushed me inside. She stepped in after me and made her way to the front counter, a smile on her face. “Hello, Mrs. Gentry,” she greeted the small grey-haired woman standing behind the counter. “I’m afraid our new student isn’t feeling well, so I need to sign her out. Could you get Adam for me? Her mom is at work, and he’s the only way we can get her to her Grandmother’s house.”
Mrs. Gentry eyed me suspiciously. “She isn’t well? Has she seen the nurse?”
Megan cleared her throat. “No, she hasn’t, but it wasn’t necessary. Mr. Harrison dismissed us both.” I watched as Megan shifted her arm forward slightly, and I saw the secretary’s eyes widen as she caught sight of my blackened notebook.
“I see,” she breathed. She glanced at me quickly and then hurried to the phone behind her. “Yes, let me call down to Adam’s teacher. Would you like me to contact Gwendolyn as well?”
I looked from Mrs. Gentry to Megan in awe. I was shocked that a school administrator would take the word of a sixteen-year-old girl without at least calling the teacher to double-check, and I certainly had never heard of dismissing three students for the sake of getting one home. I could only assume that things worked differently in small towns than they did in the city, but it still made me uncomfortable.
Mrs. Gentry hung up the phone and hurried back to us. “Adam is on his way,” she said, glancing at me and then quickly looking away. “I will call the store once you all leave, and I will advise Gwendolyn that you will be bringing her there straight away.”
Megan smiled. “Thank you, Mrs. Gentry. Adam and I will be back tomorrow, and I’m sure that Keegan will too.”
Mrs. Gentry rubbed her hands together and nodded. “Oh yes, I’m sure,” she said. With a sharp intake of breath, she leaned toward Megan and dropped her voice. “Should I tell Gwendolyn what happened?”
Megan’s shoulders stiffened. “Yes, you can tell her that Keegan got upset and we needed to bring her home,” she said firmly. “Everyone understands that she is under a lot of stress and may need some special consideration right now.”
Mrs. Gentry blinked. “Oh, of course,” she said hurriedly. “We do understand that it must be a very difficult time for her. I merely meant that-’’
Mrs. Gentry was cut off by the sound of the office door opening. We all turned to see Adam rushing toward us, his face unmistakably concerned. “Megan, what happened?” Without waiting for an answer, he stopped next to me and frowned. Grasping my shoulders, he turned me so I was facing him. “Are you all right, Keegan?” His blue eyes were anxiously searching mine, and for a moment I couldn’t breathe.
“Yes,” I finally gasped. “I think so.” I gave him a small smile so he would believe me, and his face relaxed.
“Thank goodness,” he said softly. Dropping his hands, he turned his attention to his sister. “Is everything… still right?”
I blinked in surprise. Still right? As opposed to what, suddenly wrong? I opened my mouth to ask what he meant, but Megan started talking before I could make a sound.
“Yes. Obviously this isn’t what we wanted to happen, but it wasn’t bad. I don’t think it could have been avoided, so maybe this is for the best.”
Adam looked at me and then back at his sister. “Maybe,” he said, doubt lacing his words, “but I feel badly about it. I mean, talk about a shock…” His voice trailed off, and then he smiled. “Anyway, we should be going, right?” He reached out and gently took my hand, and my stomach jumped in response.
Licking my lips, I nodded mutely. I was too confused to say a word, and I was suddenly exhausted. All I wanted to was to go home, either to my house or Grandmother’s house, and I followed Adam and Megan out the front door of the school silently, my stomach pitching and rolling as I thought back to what had happened in class. I knew there had to be some explanation, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure it out. All I could do was hope someone had an answer, because I was scared that I really was going crazy, and considering the looks I had gotten from everyone else, they though so too.
We arrived at Gwendolyn’s Gifts after an almost silent ride from the school. Adam and Megan had spoken in low tones when we first got into Adam’s truck, but I tuned them out quickly once I realized they were talking in the same confusing terms I had grown used to hearing. I didn’t have the strength this time to even try to figure out what they meant, so I decided to ignore them completely. With a sigh I lay my head against the window and allowed my eyes to slip closed, and I settled into the half-asleep state where snippets of what could have been dreams or possibly memories slipped in and out of my mind.
I was jolted out of my relaxed state when Adam parked the truck and turned the engine off. I didn’t look at either of them as the silence filled the vehicle, and I stared at Grandmother’s shop with trepidation. Even though I was desperate for answers, I was terrified of what she might tell me, and I hesitated before pushing the door to the truck open.
“It will be okay, Keegan,” Megan whispered next to me. “It really will. I know you’re scared, and I know that you’re probably angry because of all the secrets…” Her voice trailed off, but I still didn’t turn around to look at her.
Adam cleared his throat, and my heart jumped a bit at the sound. “She’s right, Keegan,” he said firmly. “Everything will work out. It’s going to happen one way or another anyway, so just relax, listen, and take your time. We’ll be here for you, and you have your family now too.”
I whipped my head around and stared at him. “What’s ‘going to happen one way or another,’ Adam?” I asked. I could feel the anger pushing away the numbness that had kept me silent, and I narrowed my eyes at him. “Am I finally going to hear about what it is I can’t escape? Is someone finally going to tell me the truth about why I’m here in this crazy town and why my own cousin can’t stand the sight of me?” Embarrassed, I wiped the tears from my cheeks. “I hope so,” I seethed as I pushed the truck’s door open and stepped onto the curb. “I really hope they do, because at this point I’m sick to death of the whole thing! If the truth isn’t spilled soon, I’m leaving to go back to Tampa whether my mother comes with me or not! I refuse to stay here in a town where I’m not wanted and where I’m a part of something so secretive no one will even tell me what it’s about!”
Breathing hard, I took one last look at the stunned faces of the Murphy siblings and slammed the door to the truck so hard the window rattled. Furious, I turned and stomped my way to the door of Gwendolyn’s Gifts and pulled the door open with such a violent tug, the bells overhead slammed together in a joyless cacophony of noise. I heard the door to the truck open again, and I assumed Adam and Megan were following me into the store, but I allowed the door to close behind me as I made my way to the front counter where Grandmother stood looking at me with a sad smile on her face.
“Do not smile at me, Grandmother,” I snapped. I stopped and crossed my arms across my chest, and I stared at her angrily. “I am sick to death of these stupid charades, and I want some answers!”
She blinked once and then shifted her gaze from me to the door of the store as Adam and Megan entered. “Thank you both for bringing her here, and thank you for being such good friends. I can see that we might have to change the order of things a bit, hmmm?” She smiled as Adam and Megan approached, but neither one said anything. I continued to breathe heavily while I waited for them to start talking, but I could feel their eyes on me, and Grandmother turned her attention back to me once again.
“So,” she said softly. “There was some trouble at school, yes? I’m glad you were thinking so quickly and took her out of class, my dear.” She directed her statement to Megan, but her cool blue eyes held mine steadily. “Things could have gotten quite confusing if you hadn’t.”
I bit my lip, but I didn’t turn away. Grandmother was trying to get me to back down, but I refused to give in. I was done waiting.
Grandmother sighed. “Adam, Megan, I think it’s time for you to go home now. Keegan’s mother is on her way, and I think we have some family business to discuss.”
I heard both of them let out deep sighs of relief behind me, and Grandmother smiled at them gently. I felt a hand on my shoulder and I cringed, but I didn’t step away as I recognized Adam’s now familiar touch.
“Keegan, I want you to know…” He squeezed my shoulder and sighed, the sound full of frustration. “I want to you to know that I care about you. We all do, and we will never desert you.” I knew he was waiting for a response from me, but I refused to look at him, and he dropped his hand after a moment.
Grandmother smiled at him kindly. “Keegan knows that,” she said softly. “Thank you again, Adam, and please tell your parents that I will call them this evening. I am anticipating some changes to our schedule, so I will need everyone to be a bit flexible until we figure things out.”
Adam and Megan both left with whispered good-byes, and Grandmother walked them both to the door. I didn’t turn around even when they held a quick whispered conversation just outside, and I remained focused on the front counter when I heard Grandmother close the door and her footfalls start to cross the room toward the fireplace.
“Keegan, there is no need to let your anger grow roots, my dear,” she said wearily. “Come sit with me, and let’s see if we might be able to start working some things out.”
I hesitated, but I knew I was going to have to do things Grandmother’s way if I wanted any answers at all. With a sigh of resignation I dropped my arms and made my way to the love seat across from where she sat, and I lowered myself into its softness with a sniff. I curled my legs up to my chest and rest my chin on my knees, and I didn’t comment when she placed my science notebook down on the table between us.
“So,” she started, her voice gentle. “My understanding is that there was an incident in class this afternoon. Would you like to tell me about it?”
I shrugged and stared at the notebook in an effort to avoid her gaze. The edges were dark and warped, and there was an unmistakable burn pattern on the cover. The pages underneath had been spared for the most part, but the edges had started to curl in response to whatever heat had touched them.
“I don’t know,” I finally admitted. “One minute Megan was talking about how we don’t have any choices in our lives, and then the teacher started talking. I wasn’t paying attention to him because it’s all stuff I heard in class last year, and then suddenly Megan was grabbing my arm and telling me to calm down. I didn’t do anything, but my notebook…” My voice was rising, and I could hear the panic in my tone.
Grandmother cleared her throat. “How were you feeling, Keegan?” She asked me. “Right before that, what thoughts were going through your mind?”
I struggled to remember. “I was… upset,” I said slowly. “I was scared because Mom and I were supposed to meet with aunt Erin and Lila this afternoon, and I didn’t know what to expect from that.” I paused, and feeling guilty, I met her steady blue eyes. “I was also angry,” I said softly, dropping my gaze again. “There seemed to be even more secrets, and I was mad that Megan seemed to know something but wouldn’t tell me.” I took a deep breath and raised my eyes again. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Grandmother leaned forward and put her hands on her knees. “You, my dear, have nothing to be sorry about,” she said firmly. “I am actually quite surprised that nothing like this has happened before, especially with you returning home and becoming part of the equation again. Your emotions are aligning and your strength is growing just as I knew they would, and it’s a wonder you’ve been able to keep as much control over your responses as you have.” She smiled at me as I started at her, dumbfounded. “I hope this means that you possess even more greatness than I first imagined,” she continued.
I closed my eyes wearily. “Grandmother,” I said, exhaustion filling every fiber of my being, “please, stop. I’m tired of the riddles, and nothing is making sense anymore. I’m losing my mind, and when you talk like this, I wonder if you are too. I either need some answers, or I need to check myself into a very quiet place with white walls and little blue pills.”
Grandmother’s laughter filled the bookstore, but it did little to lighten my mood. “You are quite right, Keegan,” she said. I kept my eyes closed as I heard her stand up, and I didn’t move when she lay a quilt over me. “Rest, my dear,” she said quietly. “I need to call your mother, because I think the time has come that we answer some of your questions. Just sit tight.”
I snuggled into the quilt, my exhaustion overriding my curiosity. My brain was numb, and I allowed myself to slip into the darkness of sleep, hopeful that when I woke up, I would finally have the answers I needed to calm my soul.