am-bush: n. to pick a subject (me) and lie in wait to attack
“Heads up,” a loud voice called from my right. I looked up just in time to see a football smack me right between the eyes.
I never really understood the saying heads up. At least not as a warning. Duck or watch out or flying object, even heads down would’ve worked. I lie on my back, book clutched to my chest, staring at the purple-and-gold streaked sky—the Perceptives must’ve been gearing up for the football game that night. As if the school colors splashed across the sky would send us running to the ticket booth.
I mentally inventoried my situation. I’d landed on cement, so no mud was involved, thankfully. I’d only lost thirty seconds, at the most, so I’d still make it to class on time. I was fine. A little anxiety melted away with the thought.
A familiar face with a mess of blond hair and a wide smile appeared above me. “Sorry. I said heads up.” His smile proved he wasn’t very sorry at all, but more likely amused.
And I looked up, was what I wanted to say, but instead I ignored his offered hand and pushed myself off the ground. “Yeah, I heard you, Duke.” I brushed myself off and continued walking. The spot the football had hit throbbed, so I pressed my fingertips against it, sure there was a nasty red welt.
Guess I should’ve Searched the morning after all, and I might’ve seen that coming. But I didn’t Search all my choices—only major ones. There were already enough alternate realities floating around in my mind that sometimes it was hard to keep track of which one I had actually lived and which was the opposing choice never made.
And yet, earlier that morning when I climbed out of bed and saw the fog outside my window, I was tempted to see what would happen if I stayed home versus what would happen if I went to school. My mom made the decision for me when she opened my door and said, “Addie, I’m driving you this morning. I don’t like you to drive in the fog.”
“Okay, thanks.” I knew better than to disagree. My mom was Persuasive. It was her mental ability. As far as mental abilities went, I thought my parents had the worst ones any teenager’s parents could have. Who wanted her mom to be able to Persuade her to do anything she wanted? My mother claimed she only used it when it was important, but I wondered.
My father was a human lie detector—although my mom didn’t like it when I called him that; the technical term was Discerner—and he could immediately tell if I lied. He said he could even tell when I planned to lie. Irritating.
I slid into my seat, barely making it before the tardy bell. My best friend, Laila, wasn’t so lucky. As usual, she came walking through the door a good five minutes later. Her bright red lipstick against her pale skin immediately drew my eyes to her defiant smile. We were an odd pair, constantly tugging each other back and forth over the line that represented normal teenage behavior. Everything she did made her stand out, made people notice, but I just wanted to blend in.
“Laila, what do I have to do to get you here on time?” Mr. Caston asked.
“Move the buildings closer together?”
“Funny, Ms. Stader. Warning today. Lunch detention tomorrow. Walk faster.”
She plopped into the seat next to me and rolled her eyes. I smiled.
“Okay,” Mr. Caston said. The lights dimmed, and our desk monitors lit up. Instructions appeared on the screen, and I meticulously copied them into my notebook.
“Seriously, Addie?” Laila asked, nodding her head toward my paper.
I made an exploding sound and kept writing. The school computers hadn’t crashed in more than twenty years, but preparing for the worst never hurt anyone.
“We’re finishing up our partner work today,” Mr. Caston said. “Remember, no abilities, please; just use your brain.”
“We were using our brains,” Bobby said from up front.
“The part of your brain that doesn’t house your ability.”
Everyone groaned. But, considering biology was a Norm-training class, we all knew the rule: Classes that taught us skills to exist on the Outside needed to be learned traditionally.
“Don’t make me turn on the room’s ability blockers. I’m not teaching middle school here. And turn off your phones, people.”
Another collective moan sounded.
Laila flashed her phone at me with a conspiratorial smile. A barcoded football filled the screen. “Come to the game with me this time.”
“You bought a pass? The sky thing worked on you?”
“What? No,” she said as though the implication that she could be influenced by manipulation techniques deeply offended her. “I was going anyway. This had nothing to do with the— Whoa, what happened to your head?”
I rubbed the welt again. “Duke’s football.”
“You talked to Duke?”
“Not really, but his football and I seemed to hit it off.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bobby walk up. His leg pressed against the edge of my desk, and my stomach twisted into a knot. I tried to ignore it and pretend I didn’t see him.
“What do you want?” Laila asked. No matter how often I tried to convince her otherwise, she thought of herself as my bodyguard.
“I want to talk to Addie.”
I bent over and rummaged through my backpack, hoping he’d get the hint. He didn’t. I pulled out a yellow highlighter and set it on my desk. Still, he stayed. Finally, with a sigh, I looked up. “Bobby, please, just leave me alone.”
“I thought now that the dance was over, you’d talk to me, tell me why you went from friendly to cold the minute I asked you.”
“Yeah, so leave,” Laila added.
He walked away, glancing back once. The look he gave me said he wasn’t ready to give up yet. I hoped my look said, You’re going to have to. I also kind of hoped it said, I hate your guts, but as long as it said one of the two, I was satisfied.
“Addie, you can’t punish someone based on a Search. He has no idea what he did wrong.”
“It’s not my fault that if I went to the dance with him, he was going to shove his tongue down my throat and his hand up my dress,” I whispered.
“I know, and I’m so glad you didn’t go with him. But he didn’t actually do that.”
“But he would’ve.” I nudged the highlighter. It rolled over the glass surface of my glowing keyboard and inched toward the edge of my desk before rolling back to safety. “That’s who he is, and I can’t look at him without seeing that Search.”
“Do you want me to Erase it?”
“Have I asked you to Erase something before?” Every time she offered to Erase a memory, I asked her that question.
And every time she always answered, “If you did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
I made a face at her. “You’re a brat.”
She began painting her nails with a black Sharpie. “So, do you?”
“No. Because then I’ll forget what he’s capable of and his puppy-dog eyes might convince me to go out with him.” I shuddered. I couldn’t imagine ever thinking that his greasy brown hair and holey jeans meant he was misunderstood. But without the memories, I was sure, once again, I’d believe a good shampoo would wash the appearance of creep out of him.
“Hey, can you give me a ride home today?” I asked, ready to move past the Bobby subject.
“Sure, your car didn’t start again this morning?”
I scrolled through the diagrams on my monitor until I found our current assignment. “No, fog.”
“Ah, of course.” She didn’t need further explanation. My mom’s overprotectiveness had affected a lot of our outings. She turned toward her monitor because Mr. Caston started pacing the rows. Up on the screen was a diagram of frog innards. “Where is the kidney?” she asked.
I pointed, and the bean-shaped organ blackened as the heat from my finger touched the screen. Mr. Caston passed our desk.
“So, back to Duke,” she whispered when he was out of hearing range. “Tell me all the details.”
“There’s nothing to tell. His football knocked me down. He apologized.”
“And you said?”
I thought back. “I said, ‘Yeah, I heard you, Duke.’” A look of horror came onto her face, and I cringed.
“Addison Marie Coleman. You get handed an opportunity to flirt with Duke Rivers and you blow him off? All these years of being my friend and you have learned nothing. That was your chance. You could’ve acted like he hurt you and made him walk you to the nurse’s office.”
“He did hurt me. But he annoyed me more. He let a football hit my head.”
“How do you know he let it?”
“Hello? Because he’s Telekinetic. He could’ve easily knocked it out of the way.”
“Come on, Addie. He can’t use his powers all the time. Give him a break.”
“He let a football hit my head,” I repeated slowly.
“All right, all right, perhaps he’s not the most gentlemanly guy in the world, but he’s Duke. He doesn’t have to be.”
A loud sigh escaped my lips. “Laila, don’t make me hurt you. It’s girls like you who let guys like Duke get away with their behavior.”
She laughed. “First of all, I’d like to see you try to hurt me, Miss Skin-and-Bones. Second of all, if I were with Duke, he’d be cut down to size in seconds.” She leaned back and let out a dreamy sigh, as if a mental image of her with Duke played through her mind. “Hotlicious.”
“It’s hot and delicious combined. In the dictionary it would be listed as a noun and wouldn’t even have a definition attached, just a picture of Duke Rivers.”
“Please. There are plenty of real words Duke’s face is probably already attached to in the dictionary … conceited, egocentric, arrogant. And besides”—I smiled—“hotlicious would be an adjective.”
“Girls,” Mr. Caston said, “I don’t think much studying is going on in your corner.”
Laila pointed to the monitor. “We’ve located the kidney, Mr. Caston.”
When I got home, my parents were both in the living room. They sat on opposite couches, hands folded in their laps, looking grim. My cheeks numbed as all the blood in them suddenly left.
My house was what Laila always described as old-fashioned cozy—overstuffed, mismatched furniture; plush carpet; honey-colored walls. The kind of house that was easy to curl up and relax in. I had the opposite feeling at the moment as tension spread across my shoulders.
“Is Grandma okay?” I asked. It was the only reason I could come up with for them both being home in the middle of the day, looking so somber.
The smile that appeared on my mom’s face seemed patronizing and immediately put me on guard. “Yes, honey, Grandma’s fine. Everyone is fine. Why don’t you take care of your backpack and then come sit down? We need to talk.”
I went to my room and wondered what would happen if I barricaded myself inside. I even glanced at the tall bookcase next to the door as if the idea were actually a valid one. If I never came out, they wouldn’t be able to deliver whatever news had etched worry onto their faces. I paced for a few minutes, reviewing my options, talked myself out of Searching, then walked back out. My mom pointed to the lair (so dubbed because it was smaller than a love seat but bigger than a chair). It sat against the wall between the couches, and I lowered myself into it.
I wedged my hands beneath my thighs to keep myself from biting my nails. “Is someone going to tell me what’s going on?” I looked straight at my dad, hoping he would tell me. Whatever the news, my dad was better at a gentle delivery. He actually acknowledged the existence of feelings. Unlike my mom, who seemed to think people were like one of the programs she developed: easy to reconfigure when they didn’t react as expected.