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First pages

1. RIVER.

“They shall be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat, and with bitter destruction. I will also send teeth of beasts upon them, with the poison of serpents of the dust.”

I glanced up from my Bible and watched as Ephraim met the eyes of different people behind us. He never needed notes when he did a sermon. He knew the book by heart. He held my eyes for a beat.

“Let us pray to Saint Michael the Archangel.” I bowed my head and closed my eyes.

“Saint Michael the Archangel,” we said as one. “Defend us in battle; be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke Her, we do humbly pray, and do thou, o Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into Hell the Devil and all other evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.” I raised my head.

“I command my congregation to our Heavenly Father, and to live through Him and by Him in all acts. In the name of the Father -” I touched my forehead. “And of the Son -” I touched my chest. “And of the Holy Spirit.” Left shoulder, right shoulder.

Hands together.

“Praise be.”

I stood up and followed Mom to the back of the sanctuary. We merged into the sea of red - red shirts, red dresses, red pants. A color of sacrifice, the color of the blood of Christ.

I craned my neck around the floating heads to the other side of the aisle. Sparrow was nowhere to be found.

“Mom, have you heard anything about Sparrow?”

Mom turned towards me and smiled. “I sure have.”

“Well is she okay? Is she coming to school anytime soon?” I glanced back at their pew, but the Jacksons were gone.

We crossed the threshold of Church and stepped into the lot. Even as the sun was setting, the humidity made my clothes stick to my skin. Every breath was wet and hot. I let out the top two buttons of my shirt. The congregation continued across the lot and into the trees, in the direction of the lake.

“Where is every -” I stopped in my tracks. Mom put her hand on my forearm. “No way.”

Mom grinned. “Where do you think she’s been all this time?”

“No way,” I repeated. The smile threatened to split my face in half.

Mom nodded. “Way.”

I laughed and wrapped my arms around her. “This is awesome! Praise be. I can’t believe I didn’t realize -”

“River!” Forrest called from the tree line. He threw his arms behind him. “Hurry up!”

I jogged the rest of the way through the lot until my feet hit dewy grass.

“Hey, I just heard!” We clapped each other on the shoulder and continued down to the lake.

“I can’t believe she changed before you!” he said.

“I didn’t even know she had!” I chuckled.

Forrest laughed. “What did you think was happening?”

“I guess I didn’t think she’d change before me.” A pang of jealousy made my mouth twitch.

He smirked. “None of us did.”

I shoved him and he lost his balance for a split second, long enough for me to sprint down to the shore before he could retaliate.

My best friend stood with her toes in the water, her face towards the setting sun. Her red dress billowed behind her in the wind.

“Hey,” I murmured.

She turned around and beamed at me, her doe eyes wrinkled into tiny slits from the force of her grin.

“Hey.”

I closed the space between us and hugged her tight. Her cheek rested against my chest as her head was swallowed by my arms.

“I hear your heartbeat,” she told me. I looked down at her. “I hear everything,” she whispered. Her eyes were wild now. “Everyone.”

“Already?” She nodded and grinned.

I looked up as Ephraim parted the crowd on the shore, making his barefoot way over to us.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I whispered as we separated.

“I was busy dying.”

“I guess that would take up some time, huh?”

Abel stepped between us and took his daughter’s arm. Ephraim walked ahead of them, into the lake, until the water sloshed around his knees.

There were people already standing in the lake, waist-deep, shoulder to shoulder. A wall of red between us and the other side. Pant legs were rolled and skirts tied up as more people joined.

There was a buzzing today, more than usual at an awakening. But my sister Nova’s had been exciting, too. Mine would be.

If it ever happened.

I followed until I was ankle-deep. Mom took my left hand, Forrest, my right. I stood across the circle from Nova, like I always had.

Folded into the congregation, like I’d always been.

Abel held his daughter as she floated on the surface of the lake. Ephraim stood beside them, his hands hovering above Sparrow.

“We gather today for a special awakening. Sister Sparrow has joined the ranks of our Heavenly Father’s Chosen warriors. She is the second successor to the Elders, Chosen beyond measure.”

Two of three. I would be three. I had to be three.

“Today is the first day of eternity for her,” he continued. “Of eternity with this congregation. And with our Heavenly Father.” He held his hands up to the sky. “For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

He put his hand on Sparrow’s forehead and she disappeared under the water.

“For there are three that testify,” Ephraim said.

“The Spirit, the water, and the blood,” we answered.

“And these three are in agreement,” he replied.

“Praise Be.” Dozens of voices as one.

He let Sparrow up. She gasped and stood, rocking back and forth. Ephraim caught her arms. She had blood running from her lip down her chin, her neck, blending with the red of her dress.

Her face was contorted in agony. Ecstasy. Both.

And suddenly, like a wave of nausea, I was jealous.

“Welcome home, Sparrow.”

Insanely jealous.

The congregation erupted in cheers.

1. JOSEFINA.

I pushed myself off from the wall and let my hammock swing slowly. The air was dead tonight. There wasn’t a single breeze to stir the humidity. It made my baby hairs cling to the skin around my ears.

We hadn’t been here for three full months and I was already sick of sweating. I stretched my legs out to the edge of the hammock and watched the gathering across the lake.

“I do find it interesting,” Tony said. I glanced over at him on the porch swing, Vanessa’s legs draped across his lap. He dipped the polish wand until it was coated in baby pink and applied it to her toe as he spoke. “This is the third time this summer.”

“What do you think it is?” Vanessa asked us.

“Like, Baptisms, I guess,” I said as I itched my elbow. All the citronella in the world didn’t stop mosquitoes from feasting on me when the air was this damp.

“That’s not how you get baptized,” she chuckled.

“If you’re not Catholic it is,” I replied.

“How would you know, you heathen?” Tony muttered. Vanessa fluttered her eyelashes at me. I grinned. “Besides, I’m not sure they’ll get salvation from that water. An amoeba, maybe.”

We laughed.

The porch door slammed beside me. Bernardo stood on the lip, his back pressed to the screen.

“What are you guys doing?” he asked.

“Watching the circus,” I replied.

“What are they doing?” Vanessa asked him. She stretched around Tony to look at Bernardo. He rocked on his toes and fumbled with a cigarette.

“Awakening...chosen...ritual,” he said through his teeth as he lit the cigarette. He crossed the porch and sat on the first step from the porch to the dock. “They’ve got some kind of cloud on them. Hive mind.”

“Ritual,” Tony murmured pointedly. He capped the polish and set it on the window sill behind him.

“It has to be a baptism,” Bernardo said. I glanced above the thickets of forest which guarded Barton Heights from on all sides from prying eyes. The only thing visible above the tree line was a white cross, on the steeple of a church. I nodded in agreement.

“Chosen for a ritual,” Vanessa said. “You said it yourself.”

“I said what I heard,” Bernardo replied. He picked at the dried grey paint on his jeans.

“I bet it’s ritual sacrifice,” Tony interjected.

“What, like, they’re drowning someone?” I asked. Tony shrugged. “As long as they’re drowning the blonde bitch who wrote ‘whore’ on my locker Friday.”

“No, I’m sure they threw her a parade for that,” Bernardo sighed. I popped my gum.

“Do they always wear red?” Vanessa asked me.

“No, they wear like, normal clothes at school, actually. I wonder what the deal is with the red.”

“Hides the blood.” Tony wiggled his fingers and his eyebrows. I laughed.

The people across the lake started to cheer. It carried on the water until it was a distorted echo of excitement bouncing off the walls of the house.

“Whatever it was, it worked,” Vanessa said.

“I don’t see a dead body,” Bernardo added as he ashed the cigarette on the banister.

I fanned myself. “Maybe they just don’t have air conditioning.”

“Good point,” Bernardo said. “It’s awful out here. Why are you guys out here?” He smacked at his arm.

“Sunset, fresh air, ritual sacrifice.” Tony gestured out to the lake. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted in a home.”

He was right about one thing. The sunsets here were almost worth it. Once the sun went from blinding to orange and giant in the middle of the horizon, the sky exploded in color. Yellows and oranges streaked the sky where the light still touched, and it melted into blue and purple. The clouds went from white to grey to black. But the best part was the pink.

The brightest pinks, neon and muted alike, mixed with blue and purple right before the sun disappeared, a sherbet swirl. It made the world feel off-kilter, surreal, but only by a few degrees. These didn’t happen anywhere else I’d ever lived.

Tonight the oranges were almost red. It melted down the horizon and mixed with the red backs of the people across the lake as they went back to shore. The light was wavering, the eerie halo of dusky light casting everything in a foreign glow. A girl stayed in the lake alone, the water up to her waist. Her dress floated on the surface around her. Soaked through, it was darker than red.

Red streaked the sky, the girl, the water. A bloody scene.

I smirked.

A ritual sacrifice.

2. RIVER.

I honked for the fourth time in as many minutes.

The yellow door to the Jackson house swung open and Sparrow stomped out as if I had her by a hook in the jaw.

“I am coming.” I couldn’t hear her but I saw her yelling these words at me, every syllable overly pronounced. She slung her bag over her shoulder and walked around the front of the truck.

I beeped the horn a little and she almost jumped out of her skin. She slapped the hood and glared at me. I waved towards me, indicating she should get in.

She slammed the door of the cab behind her.

“Good morning, space cadet.” She opened her backpack. “How much sleep did you get?”

“I would give all my limbs for the mothership to beam me up right now.”

“That much, huh?” I took off. She pulled out a tube of lipstick. “You’re nervous.”

“Who, me? Surely you jest.”

I came to the gate out of Barton and made a right onto Shell Court. The dirt road was our only connection to the 33, the sole main road through Thistlewolf. Barton’s gate backed up to the forest; most of this side of town was surrounded by forests or orange groves.

A red brick wall with a set of black iron gates was the only thing on Shell Court besides trees and dirt. I stared at it as we passed - I always had. From this side, the house was barely visible, shielded by the wall and the trees. But I could see it from my house, across the lake. The Manor. The only historical landmark in Thistlewolf.

As kids we said the house was haunted by ghosts. We weren’t supposed to give credence to ghosts. But the house sat vacant so long we thought that had to be the reason.

Until the owners moved back in. Then we wished we had been right.

“You’re not.” Her voice made me jump as I turned left onto Remington Road.

“I’m not what?” I asked.

“Nervous,” Sparrow mumbled through her open lips as she applied in the foggy rearview mirror. “The rambling River is still.”

I smirked. “I’m not the one coming in a week late.”

She winced. “Don’t remind me.”

“I hear public school doesn’t really start until the second week anyway.”

“Is that some of your newfound mainstream wisdom?” I slammed on my brakes as we approached the light from Remington to the 33. Sparrow wiped the streak of purple off her face with the heel of her hand.

“Sorry.”

“To make it up to me you could just drive us into a tree.”

“Dark.” I made the right onto the 33. Two miles to go and twenty minutes to make it. I sped up. “I guess we should leave a little earlier tomorrow. First period’s far from the parking lot.”

“We have to do this again tomorrow?”

“Yeah, it’s a continuous gig.”

“That wasn’t in my contract,” she said as she rubbed at the spot where her lipstick had been. “I swear this won’t come off.” She rubbed harder.

“Drop your mind.”

“It’s dropped,” she snapped. I grabbed her hand and flattened it on her leg.

“You don’t have anything on your face,” I told her. I took a deep breath and squeezed her hand. She inhaled, too. “And out.” We exhaled together. “One.” She raised her eyebrow.

“I told you we weren’t doing that in public.”

“We’re not in public yet. One.”

“One, two, three, four, five,” she sighed.

I smiled and put both hands on the wheel. “Good.” We slowed as the traffic came to a head near the turn into the parking lot of the high school.

I didn’t blame her for her nerves. We’d all dealt with a big culture shock the second we mainstreamed. Every year, the new 11th graders would tell us underclassmen and every year, the new class underestimated how different Thistlewolf High was from Barton Heights Academy. Like how girls and boys had classes together. And no one prayed before each lesson. Or how proselytizing was the biggest grade we’d get by the end of senior year.

With eight minutes to spare we pulled into C42, my spot, and I put the truck in park. Sparrow was staring at herself in the mirror. She flicked her fingernails against one another.

“Exhale,” I said as I checked my own hair in the side mirror. I tried to fluff it up, to keep the curls out of my face. It never worked.

“You can exhale. You got to mainstream with everyone else.” She opened the door and got out. I followed her. “You shared the new kid thing with them,” she continued as we met at the back of the truck. “I’m doing this alone.” She started off ahead of me.

“You don’t know where you’re going,” I chuckled. She turned and glared. “Drop your mind. I’m going to be with you, okay?”

“For two classes.” I smiled and dug in my pocket.

“Actually…” I pulled the pink slip of paper out and handed it to her. She unfolded it, her eyebrows furrowing as she read. She looked at me, a smile playing on her lips.

“You lied to me.”

“Mom talked to Mrs. Gellar.” Mrs. Gellar was Thistlewolf’s principal. “We now have four classes together, thank you very much.” I took the paper and stuck it in the pocket on my button-down. “Feel better now?”

“Better? No. Less suicidal? Maybe.” I rolled my eyes.

Even at quarter til eight in the morning, the air was hazy and hot. Sparrow kept close to me as we cut through rows across the parking lot. It was practically deserted already.

“It’s disgusting out here,” she muttered. “How is it so nasty so early?”

“How are you not used to this by now?”

“Do you ever get used to being suffocated by a wet wool blanket?” She kicked a rock in her path. We stopped short as a small, cherry red car sped through the row in front of us. Sparrow jumped back as gravel and dirt sprayed up from the ground.

“Nice,” I muttered, wiping the front of my jeans.

“It was a cute car, though. Soft-top, too. It’ll be easy to steal when I burn this place to the ground.”

“Oh, please, I learned years ago to keep the matches away from you,” I said.

“Double A battery and a foil gum wrapper. Takes seconds.”

I looked at her as we entered the courtyard. “I don’t know if I’m impressed or terrified.”

“I like to think it’s an equal mixture of both,” she replied.

“More like 60-40.”

“What’s our first class?”

“History. Building Three.” I pointed.

“How about instead, you slit my throat?”

I rolled my eyes. “I think they only have drama club on Wednesdays, actually.”

She smirked at my tone. “Fine, I’m done. I think I tortured you enough this morning.”

“You’ve tortured me enough for eternity,” I corrected. I grabbed her by the backpack when we reached Mrs. Palmetto’s classroom.

She took a deep breath. “Let’s get this over with.”

We sat down in the last available table, front row far left. Sparrow pulled her notebook out. I put my textbook between us to share.

“Thanks,” she said.

“For what?”

“For making the Elders let me come.”

“No one makes the Elders to do anything,” I chuckled.

She rolled her eyes. “I know I’m your project.” I didn’t respond.

Sparrow was always my project, ever since we were little kids in Sunday school. I followed rules. I was obedient. I was the Elder Ephraim’s grandson.

The bell rang, and Mrs. Palmetto slammed the door shut before the last tone was done. She was not one to allow sliding in at the last second. She wasn’t one for teaching, either - a week in her class had shown me her favorite thing of all was silent torture.

There were only two other kids from Barton in this class - Autumn Sawyer and Leah Gellar, two thirds of the most popular group of girls back at the Academy. They had carried it with them to mainstream school, with pom-poms and twin ponytails, one blonde, one red.

I had specifically picked the table furthest from them for Sparrow’s sake.

We watched as Mrs. Palmetto leaned closed to a boy in the second row. I cringed imagining what her breath was like so close to his face. He stood up and walked to the trash can. He spit something out. Mrs. Palmetto put her hands on her hips and pointed to the door. The kid left with his head hanging.

I glanced at Sparrow, who watched it all with wide eyes.

This definitely wasn’t the Academy.

But she hadn’t always had the best time there, either.

I remembered the moment in second grade when everyone found out who I was. Mrs. McNamara was our second grade teacher. Sparrow was throwing a fit over having to share her crayons.

“River, what do you think Elder Ephraim would say if he saw Sparrow being so foolish?” Mrs. McNamara had asked me.

I knew, even then, the weight his name held and the reputation it gave me. To be a Matthews. Sparrow stopped crying long enough to look at me, her giant eyes wet with tears. Her bottom lip shook.

I stood up and pointed at her. “If you’re disobedient the ravens will poke out your eyes. Ephraim says so.”

I remembered how her eyes went blank and her jaw set, her little face violently, suddenly still.

Sparrow never cried in school again.

The Elders said I had a way with her, that her wild, troubled mind latched to me to keep her out of trouble. Sparrow said they must have bribed me to keep her from embarrassing them. But I loved Sparrow Jackson the way I loved the smell of leather, the way I loved honey, the way I loved reading. I had never stopped doing penance for that day in second grade.

She’d always be my project, my special thing, my other half.

“Mister Matthews,” Mrs. Palmetto said. I snapped back to the present.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Would you like to rejoin us here in the real world?”

My cheeks got warm. My ears slunk down to my shoulders. “Yes ma’am.”

She turned her attention back to the class. “Your homework tonight is to read chapters two through four and answer the reviews at the end of each chapter.” The equivalent of sinking low in a chair happened to the energy in the room. Sparrow exhaled loudly.

Mrs. Palmetto’s eyes narrowed at her. I braced myself for the wrath.

The bell rang.

Sparrow jumped out of her seat and rushed ahead of the rest of the students. I caught up with her in the hall.

“Hey, hey, you okay?” I put my hand on her shoulder and turned her to face me. Her eyes darted around us. “What is it?”

“I don’t know if I can do this,” she gasped.

“I know she’s tough, but it’s only one class -”

She shook her head. “This.” She spun her finger around. “It’s all so...loud.” She looked up at me. “I can’t explain it. But I can’t shut them up.”

I nodded. “We’re going to figure out how to quiet it. At least here. But I need you to stick it out with me. Don’t prove the Elders right.”

She shook her head, and her purple lips pulled upward. “Never.”

I started to lead her out of the building.

“It’s all going to be good if you stick with me. I can’t do it without you.” I put my arm around her shoulder and opened the door.

“Well, well, well,” that soft, rasping voice murmured.

I always looked at Cecelia Chase the same way. Up down up. Dirty blonde ponytail, eyes like sea glass, peach lipstick. Pale arms crossed across the chest of her uniform. Skirt too short for school but ignored because it was school-issued. One mile-long leg bent, foot up on the brick wall she leaned against. White tennis shoes. Back to the legs as they started towards me. I ended up at the eyes by the time she stopped walking.

“Hi, baby.” I slid my arm off Sparrow casually and put it around Ceci. “Sorry I didn’t see you this morning. We were almost late.” I willed Sparrow along with my mind and kissed the top of Ceci’s head.

She leaned around my arm and looked at Sparrow. “Your makeup looks so good.”

Sparrow raised her eyebrow and nodded. “Thanks.” Ceci smirked at me and I squeezed her.

“I know your schedule’s all weird now,” Ceci said to me. “Do you still have Delgado next?”

“Yeah, I only switched lit and chem. The rest of my schedule is the same.”

She frowned. “Lit? Guess you won’t be helping me make copies anymore.” Ceci was a teacher’s aide for the English building last period, a free agent with keys to the copy room. I had gone to English maybe once since I started at this school.

“Oh, I’ll find a way,” I whispered in her ear. “I wouldn’t give it up for the world.” We came to Building Two. Ceci’s class was the first door inside.

She smirked. “Better not. Bye.” I wrapped a hand around her ponytail gently and let it run through my fingers as she left.

“Bye.” Sparrow and I continued down the hall as I reeled. The smell of her perfume always left me a little glazy-eyed. I had learned after almost a year how to play it cool around her, but she still made me nervous. Too pretty for me, too popular. I was constantly confused as to why she kept me around.

She came with the baggage of everyone knowing who she was. She was Cecelia Chase, so I was Cecelia Chase’s boyfriend. It was part of the reason I hadn’t worried about mainstreaming. I already had a built-in reputation as someone cool enough to occupy Ceci’s time. I would drag Sparrow, kicking and screaming, into that heady glow of being known.

“What are you looking at?” Sparrow hissed. I snapped back to reality. Two senior girls in cheer skirts were glaring from beside a bank of lockers.

“That’s my fault, sorry. Ceci’s friends.”

“Do they think I’ll infect you with my alternative tastes?” she muttered.

“No, they’re watching to see if there’s anything to report back about.” Built-in reputation.

“Quick, let’s make out.”

I chuckled. “Getting murdered by cheerleaders is not on my schedule today.”

She shot me a look. “See, I would assume to die in a pile of cheerleaders would be your dream come true.” I shrugged. She shook her head. “You think you know someone.”

“Shut up,” I chuckled. I opened the classroom door.

2. JOSEFINA.

I shut my locker and frowned at the red streaks that still lingered on the door. Lipstick was almost worse than magic marker - greasier, thicker, more personal.

I rubbed at it with my thumb and then wiped my thumb on my backpack. It did nothing.

A fist came down over my head and smashed into the locker. I jumped.

“Oh my God, Che!” I hissed. He leaned his head against the cold metal and grinned.

“Sorry.”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re so not.” We started off together towards the music building.

Che was the only person I knew in Thistlewolf besides my family. We hired him to landscape over the summer and he’d stuck, a baby-faced fixture that drooled over Vanessa and our mom in equal measure and let me teach him how to drive. He burned pancakes with my brothers and cut herbs in the dead heat of July with my dad.

When school started, and the wrath came down, he became my bodyguard. This building had a first period full of Barton kids, but Che made sure I got to the music building unbothered daily, even if it made him late to Spanish.

He was my first real friend in a long time.

“What’s your excuse for ditching me Friday?” he demanded as we came down the stairs.

“Friday?” I pulled my gum out of my backpack. “What, the game?”

“Duh,” he mimicked.

I rolled my eyes. “Get serious! Did you see my locker? I wasn’t trying to hang around the people who did that.”

“No, you were supposed to hang out with me,” he retorted as he stuck his hand out. I shoved a piece of gum in his hand. “Besides, you don’t know who did it.”

“Oh, yes I do,” I chuckled. “It was the blonde one. Big, stupid, baby doll eyes, always with the redhead.”

“How do you know?” he asked. I popped my gum. We stepped out under the already blistering sun. Che shielded his eyes with his hand and looked at me. “Huh?”

“I do, okay?”

“Mhm,” he muttered. Bernardo wouldn’t read her for me and I hadn’t seen her do it but I knew. Out of all those Barton bitches she was the one to watch.

“Whatever,” I sighed.

“Well, come with me this Friday. We’ll do our class colors, get in the spirit, it’ll be fun.”

“My class color is white.” I looked down at my dress. “I like always wear white. So I am always in the spirit.”

We reached the music building. He turned and put his hands on my shoulders.

“Fina.”

“Che.”

“Ofelia told me to make sure you get a real high school experience this time. And I can’t let a good, fine woman like her down.” I rolled my eyes. “So we’re going to the game Friday. I’m picking you up and we’re doing class colors. Okay?”

I scratched under his sweaty chin. “I’ll do my best to wear something white. Just for you.”

He smiled his big, puppy-eyed smile and then winked at me.

“Bye.” He took off back the way he came, cutting across the grass towards the humanities building. I crossed my fingers for him and went inside.

Air conditioning blasted me as I opened the door. Foreign as they were to me, school hallways - especially quiet ones like the ones in this building - were clinically comforting. The walls, ceilings, and floors blended together in a white-but-not-clean-white hue. The cement walls were cool to the touch and the echo my boots made on the linoleum made me nostalgic for something I couldn’t remember.

Doctor’s appointments as a kid, maybe.

Mr. Hart’s classroom was the last one on the left. Advanced Piano. I set my bag down and started to sit when the door to Hart’s office opened. Mr. Hart was younger than my parents, about as tall as me, and the best piano player I had ever met. He never graded tests on time and often wore mismatched socks. He was my favorite.

He beckoned me up to the Bechstein and opened a file folder.

“This is from my own collection,” he told me. “I think it’ll give you something to do.” If I was honest, I was Hart’s favorite, too. He said I was his first student who required thinking outside the box. He struggled to find music to challenge me. He thought I was a prodigy. But I’d been playing longer than he’d been alive.

The new piece looked promising, though, with enough sixteenth notes to keep me busy and a time signature I had to really work for.

I went back into the hall and looked for an empty practice room. The building was in rough shape, something I’d complained to my parents about more than once since I started school. Most of the school was well-kept, but Thistlewolf was not a town where musicians and creative types were getting much love. I closed the door behind me and sat down at my favorite Yamaha. Only three of its keys were out of tune, which was as good as it got.

I sat the papers up on the rest and started to clunk through the piece. We didn’t have a piano at this house. Ofelia had told me to get an electric one for my room but it wasn’t the same. The rumbling acoustic of a hammer striking a string and reverberating inside a wooden frame was irreplaceable. Even out of tune notes on a real piano were better than synthetic, hollow tones from a machine.

Being alone with a piano and a piece, I started to relax. Second and third period weren’t bad at all. Music and English, the easiest subjects - and no Barton kids. No one had spit at me today. That was a win.

But Che was right. I needed to get a real high school experience. At least finish high school this time without damaging any property. Teenagers with too much time on their hands weren't going to run me out. The newness would die down, and they'd find another target.

I hoped.

The bell rang too soon, and I took my time packing up the music. The English building was halfway across campus - not that campus was big.

I shuffled up the concrete stairs outside of the English building. My curls were sticking to the back of my neck. When I got to Mr. Alfred’s class, he was sitting with his feet up on his desk, slowly taking roll as people shuffled in.

There was also a girl in my seat. We didn’t have assigned seats with Alfred, but I had been sitting there, front row middle table right seat, every day.

I tossed my bag on the table beside her and sat.

“Hi,” she said - whispered. I looked over at her. She beamed at me from between purple lips.

“Hi,” I replied after a moment.

“I’m Sparrow.” I would have laughed if her name wasn’t exactly perfect for her. She was a ribbon that got snagged on a fence - long, fluttering, wispy. She had a boy’s haircut and a supermodel neck.

Those Barton kids would eat her alive.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

V. Renae is a native Floridian, a year-round ghoul, and a dog mom. When she isn’t writing, she’s bingeing podcasts about true crime and YA pulp fiction. She could also be re-reading Stephen King. Sometimes she does both at once. This is her debut novel and her pet project of 8+ years.

Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
Thistlewolf is a small, simple town crawling with creatures from a world which exists just below our own. A world called the Miralux, filled with things we only hear of in fairy tales and nightmares. These books explore what happens when long-seated feuds are unintentionally reignited.
Q. Why do you write?
A.
I write because I literally can’t do anything else. Sometimes, you get possessed by an idea to the point where the lines blur between the idea and your life. This idea, this story, has never left me alone. It demands to be told. That’s why I write.
Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
A.
The Harry Potter series. Carrie by Stephen King. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Forbidden Game series by LJ Smith. Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.

Next in:
Teen & Young Adult
Reimagining Joe
Alien rebuilt human hides from enemies & CIA
Kahuna
The Full Moon is Coming
Sirens of the Seas
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.