I had become obsessed with strange things lately. This included: my neighbor’s lawn gnome that jumped at the sound of dogs barking, a black cat that escorted me to and from school every day but most importantly, I was fascinated by every inch of golden-brown skin that I could see peeking out of David Hale’s school uniform.
Paranormal studies was the perfect class to enable this bad habit.
I sat right behind David and had a clear view of his neck, sitting close enough to brush my finger across the edge of David’s collar. I picked at my nail cuticles instead, watching and waiting. A little flicker of something moved. My back straightened. I saw it again, slithering across the bottom of David’s curls.
Technically, a king cobra.
Like an animated tattoo, the outline of a snake eyeballed me and wiggled its skinny tongue. I smiled, holding back a wave goodbye as David’s snake disappeared underneath his clothing again. That was the fifth time this week. I was officially not crazy and seeing things… well, at least I wasn’t seeing things.
“Mr. Hale,” our teacher, Mrs. Sambury lorded over David’s desk with that furrowed brow she wore more often than deodorant. She was built like a wonky bookshelf, tall, awkwardly structured, and covered in baubles. “This is a paired activity. You must choose a partner—”
“But I don’t respect group activities, so I don’t deserve to participate them.” David smirked and leaned back in his chair like he was going to spill out of it, all legs and arms.
“I’ll pair with David.” I raised my hand.
The entire class turned in the moment, David’s face fell.
It was probably the first time anyone had seen the new kid, which somehow shared the same feeling of everyone shouting at me at once. If only I knew a spell that could let me crawl inside myself and vanish.
“Thank you, Mr. Keys,” Mrs. Sambury said in a forced way and stepped away from David’s desk. Just in case his attitude was contagious, and if she caught it, she’d begin mouthing off to the other teachers and strolling into class late too.
Before I knew it, class was over, and I was standing by David at his locker.
“My place or yours?” I innocently asked.
Rolling his eyes, David acted like I needed him to spell my name out for me. “Mine, obviously.” He could deliver rejection like a punch to the gut.
My spirits were low for making a friend.
David led me to the portal gates at the end of the grounds. A wall of golden ornate gates that were shaped like archways, welcoming witches to walk through the holographic pools shining in their middles. Portal Gates were faster than a broomstick or by car, but they required a portal on the other side, which means magical families needed to afford them, which translated to hunks of cash.
David announced, “The Hale Estate.”
In a burst of blinding white light, I was sucked through like a fish on a hook. When we reached the other side, I dropped to my hands and knees, gasping for air on grass so green it must’ve been enchanted.
“What a rush!” I said, but David didn’t respond.
He never really did. This was our routine. Nothing seemed to affect him, which frustrated me as much as when my socks slipped down my shoes. I tended to feel too much about everything. It must be nice not to care. David honestly spoke more in a series of eye rolls and sighs than with words.
His existence was a riddle I so desperately wanted to crack. If only I was smart enough. If only David wasn’t actively trying to stand out of my view. It was a chase that David didn’t realized he was involved in.
But David had made a mistake.
On my first day at Radcliffe Academy for Magic, I nearly fell down the staircase. No one had warned me that the ghosts relished haunting the stairs and would scream and grab at students’ ankles for fun. I was nearly flung over the railing, but David grabbed my arm and yanked me back on solid ground.
David said, a twinge of amusement pinching his lips, “Watch it. We can’t replace your mother’s son.”
Obviously, David didn’t remember me.
But I remembered him.
My voice echoed in David’s house. It wasn’t empty. Not by a longshot. There was stuff everywhere, but the ceilings were so high, there were a thousand corners for my voice to bounce off and jump around. Honestly, it reminded me less of a house and more like a museum. Everything was beautiful, carefully chosen, and curated… but nothing was meant to be touched. Nothing was open to comfort. I kept my hands firmly by my side to avoid accidently brushing something and setting off some sort of alarm.
“Do you guys actually use every room in this place? Or are there like locked rooms or something? Don’t tell me. The latter sounds creepy. Do you think someone is secretly living here?” I couldn’t stop the rush of questions circulating in my brain and I absolutely couldn’t stop them from tumbling out of my big mouth. Once, I had given myself the hiccups from talking too fast. Might do it again today. “That sounds creepy too. I wouldn’t listen to me. My parents said they dropped me a lot as a baby—”
David gave me a withering look, the kind that could spoil fresh fruit. “No.”
“No to what?”
“My new house is the biggest we’ve ever moved to my whole life. Once, we lived in New York and my room was so tiny, I swear it was a closet. My dad gave me twenty bucks to drop it and if that’s not an admission of guilt then I’d eat my shoe—”
David whipped around and I stumbled back, thrown by the severe look in his dark eyes. If he could, David would set me on fire. “What are you playing at?”
My neck nearly snapped from the whiplash. My face flushing, I insisted, “I-I’m not—! I’m not playing about anything. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” Out of instinct, I held my hands up in surrender to show I harbored no weapons of mass destruction.
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