On Friday I was exhausted, having spent half the night awakened by inexplicable terror. I'd never had a nightmare before in my life, so the sudden appearance of them was unsettling. I sat numbly through the critique in art class, not contributing my opinions of my classmates' artwork and barely listening to the opinions of others. I hated crit days. It pained me to talk about my work in front of everyone.
"Lilly?" Miss Bell prompted when it was my turn, much too soon.
I squirmed on my stool and tried to remember the words I had rehearsed in my head before class, but I couldn't make them come out properly. "Um . . ." I began lamely. "I used technical pens . . . on bristol paper . . . Instead of a mirror I used a window, and that's how my reflection looked." I drew a deep breath. That had been unpleasant.
"Hmm," Miss Bell said, contemplating my drawing. "Do you think it's missing something?"
"No," I replied immediately.
"What does everyone else think?"
"It doesn't really look like you," one boy commented.
I could feel my face burning. He meant I hadn't included my birthmark in the drawing, and everyone knew it.
"It doesn't capture your essence," someone else said.
I nodded silently, pretending to agree. Usually when someone attempted to defend their own drawing, they ended up sounding upset about the criticism.
"I think it's kind of nice," one girl said. I turned to look at her. She had shoulder-length brown hair and green eyes. I couldn't remember her name. "It's very spare," she continued, "and the lines are sophisticated. If you get up close, you can see how delicate the line work really is."
"Thank you, Mirain," Miss Bell said. "Lilly, this is a very good effort. In the future, however, I would like to see some emotion in your work. I would like for us to see you in your drawings."
I stewed about that until the end of class, which couldn't have come soon enough. I barely kept from dozing off in English, revived myself for lunch, then zoned out in government. After I'd successfully made it through the day without slipping into a coma, all I wanted to do was go home and nap, dreaming about not having class again until January. However, I found my brother, Chris, Austin, and Joy waiting for me in the parking lot. They wanted to go to the Blue Shrimp, a sleepy diner downtown where we occasionally convened. I decided to go along despite my lethargic state, thinking a cup of hot tea sounded nice on such a cold day.
"Lilly's coming!" Chris cheered. She placed a hand on my shoulder, perhaps in an attempt to make up for the time we'd lost as friends the past few weeks.
"Austin's the only one who wanted to wait for you," Joy informed me snarkily as we crowded into the Oldsmobile. So much for our newfound friendship.
The Blue Shrimp didn't seem like the kind of place that would ever attract high school students, which explained why we hardly ever saw anyone we knew there. A small cafe soaked in muddy mustard light, it looked like it might appeal to people who wanted to avoid drawing attention. Like me. The booths were ugly chocolate brown, the walls a dense red ochre. The speakers whispered indistinct, boring music, but the food was good so no one really minded. How the place had ever come by its name was a mystery to everyone.
We took our usual booth in the corner by the window. I occupied the innermost seat and leaned against the glass, letting the cold seep inside me. No one had commented on the lavender sweeps beneath my eyes. They probably figured I was putting in extra hours studying or something. As if I'd ever lost any sleep over schoolwork.
Austin sat beside me, close but not touching. We barely looked at each other. It was almost as if his invitation to the dance hadn't happened. I guessed he was still coming over to my house tonight before the dance, since I hadn't heard anything different. I tried to think of something to say to him.
"Thanks for waiting," I offered lamely.
"Yeah," he returned, his eyes darting to me and away.
I slumped in my seat. He didn't seem interested in me at all. Which was okay, since I didn't think of him romantically. Still, I couldn't think why he had asked me to the dance in the first place.
As we perused our greasy plastic menus, Chris and Joy started talking about their college applications, a subject which held no importance for me. Or Brandt, for that matter. Neither of us did well enough in school to earn scholarships, like Austin with his athletics, and there was no way my mom could pay for both of us. But I didn't care. I just didn't know what I wanted to do instead.
"What'll ya have?" the red-haired server asked as she approached our table. She stared at her pad, pen at the ready. The Blue Shrimp wasn't known for its prompt or friendly service, which was probably why nobody we knew ever came here.
"The sundae, please," Chris ordered. "No nuts."
"There's only one kind of nuts Chris likes," Brandt announced slyly.
Brandt and Austin laughed, Chris looking back and forth between them in confusion. Joy just rolled her eyes and ordered coffee.
"Hot tea," I muttered. I had a couple of dollars to cover that, at least.
"Grilled cheese," Austin said. My brother decided to have the same, barely getting in his order before the server slunk away.
My gaze strayed outside and I thought longingly of my bed. I stirred my tea when it arrived, letting the mug warm my bloodless hands. I inhaled the steam and pretended I was alone. In a stylish café in some distant city. Waiting. Waiting for . . .
A figure in black across the street caught my eye. I squinted, focusing my gaze, until I recognized, with some surprise, Ahaziel. He just stood there in front of an antiques store, staring in the windows of the Blue Shrimp, watching me. Oh god. Was he stalking me? No, he was probably looking at something else. He was just out for a stroll through town . . . But why wasn't he moving? I could feel the dark weight of his eyes upon me even from across the street, even through glass. Was he angry I hadn't gone to meet him yesterday as I'd said I would?
The food arrived, distracting me for only a moment. Brandt handed me half of his grilled cheese. I held it poised awkwardly in front of my mouth, not able to bring myself to take a bite, knowing Ahaziel was watching me. I couldn't put it down, either, because then I would have to find something else to do with my hands. I tried concentrating on the conversation, but I couldn't help obsessing over the way I looked in profile to Ahaziel. Like Lee Miller, Miss Bell had once told me. I'd looked at the portrait she'd indicated in one of her art books, studying the woman's long nose, pretty mouth, serene eyes, and dainty chin. But my face wasn't like hers because mine was wary, resentful, and paranoid, my expressions mirroring my feelings no matter how hard I tried to hide them. My face had two sides, one plain and honey-pale, the other stained with that gigantic splash of pale berry-red.
I let my gaze slide cautiously back in Ahaziel's direction. He hadn't moved. Not one inch.
Doesn't anyone else see him? I wondered. Does he even exist?
I willed myself to act natural even if it was the last thing I felt. I turned back to the group and summoned a weak smile. "Any plans after the dance?"
"That's when we're going to Austin's to celebrate your birthday," Joy said. "Haven't you been listening?"
"Um, not really."
I glared at her as Brandt and Austin began discussing pranks they might perform at the dance, but Joy didn't notice. I bit into my grilled cheese half and chewed determinedly.
I couldn't help but glance out the window again. Ahaziel had gone.
Dun dun dun!