Light streamed in past the curtains, forcing Lil’s eyes open. She grumbled and rolled onto her stomach, burying her face further into the pillow. At any moment, her mother would come into her room and yell at her to get out of bed. She’d be late for school if she didn’t hurry. Lil pushed herself out from under the covers and sat up. She grimaced and glanced at the light peeking in through the curtains. Most mornings, the light was bright yellow from the sun rising just outside her window. But today, an eerie pink glow bled its way into her room, leaving her bedroom a sickening shade of bubblegum.
“Mom?” Lil called, but she heard no answer. Down below, the porch door squeaked. Lil moved toward the shades. Was this one of Jamey’s pranks? She loved playing tricks on Lil, as any ten-year-old sister would. Lil half expected to see pink plastic wrap on the window. She peered through the curtain and pushed it aside. Lil’s heart skipped a beat at the odd hue of the sun. Dark red clouds gathered and rolled in toward the house. The wind whipped outside, causing the windowpanes to shudder. The clatter sounded as if long talon-like fingernails tapped at the screen. A shadow quickly flew over the house. Lil studied its shape on the ground, unable to see the creature from her window. Was it… a dragon? She backed away from the window and froze, hearing the creature land with a thud on the roof. Her eyes shot up toward the ceiling. Something was walking up there. Silently, she hoped it wouldn’t find its way into her home.
“What the…” she mumbled to herself. She had to be dreaming. “Wake up.” Her surroundings didn’t change.
Lil rushed down the stairs, two at a time. “Mom?” Her mother would know what was going on. Maybe a storm was coming? Tornados weren’t rare occurrences in Missouri. She made her way to the kitchen and found the house quiet and empty. Lil searched the counter, finding it empty. Her mother never left without a note. It wasn’t like her. Everything was wrong. She trudged back up the stairs to her room.
“Jamey! Hurry up in there! I have to get ready for school.” Lil pounded on the bathroom door as she passed. She walked toward the closet and pulled out a half-dozen outfits, dropping two on her bed. The rest of her clothes littered the floor. She settled on a pair of jeans and a lavender shirt. Lil stalked to the bathroom and found it uninhabited. “Thank you!”
She stripped down and changed into her clothes. When she looked up at her reflection in the mirror, she took a tentative step back, bumping into the tub behind her. Her reflection was different. Her pale skin had a distinctive creamy glow, and her eyes had brightened to ocean blue instead of their usual faint sky blue. Her long brown hair now had streaks of blonde highlights. She glanced down at the tips of her fingernails and noticed they were a midnight blue with yellow bolts of lightning.
“What the hell!” Using her thumb, she tried to brush the polish off, but it didn’t budge. “Jamey!” Lil opened the bathroom door.
Coming out from the bedroom, a little boy with chestnut hair rounded the corner and stared up at her with steel-blue curious eyes. “Yes?” he asked with a warm, inviting smile. “What is it, Willow?”
Staring back at the stranger who wasn’t much older than her sister, Lil’s eyes widened. No one ever called her Willow. She hated her given name, Willow Porter. She much preferred Lil. “Who are you?” she demanded, pushing past the young child toward her sister’s room. “Jamey? Jamey, where are you? This isn’t funny!” Lil reached the bedroom and found the walls painted with a jungle theme. This wasn’t Jamey’s room! Jamey’s room had butterflies and mermaids on the wall. This was a boy’s bedroom. What was happening?
The room spun. She swayed in the hall, her eyes widening further in confusion as she saw the pictures on the wall stare back at her—Lil and the same little boy smiling and hugging. Her fingers traced the frame, and she took two steps forward, finding another photograph of herself and the same boy sticking their tongues out and making faces at one another. Not a single family photograph of her family adorned the wall, and none contained her little sister.
“Calm down,” said a familiar voice from behind Lil. She spun around and jumped at the sight of herself staring back at her. “You’re not supposed to be here.” The young woman looked exactly like Lil, but with soft blue eyes, simple brown hair, and unpainted nails that had been chewed. She was the perfect reflection of how Lil saw herself every day. Ordinary. Just behind Lil’s look-alike stood a boy, muscular and a few inches taller with dark, messy hair and pale gray eyes. She didn’t recognize him, and she would have remembered a face like his; he was good looking.
“What’s she doing here?” His voice had the faintest hint of an accent. If she didn’t know any better, it almost sounded Australian with a thick twang. “I didn’t do this, I swear. You have to send her back. It’s not safe for her here, Willow.”
“Rawlie, I know that. Hush,” Willow said, sounding frustrated. “I’ll send her back.” She reached out, the tip of her finger touching Lil’s arm, transferring a spark of electricity between them.
The jolt bolted Lil upright in bed, and she struggled to catch her breath. She pushed herself out of bed, her heart pounding as she raced for the window, needing to see the truth with her own eyes. She pushed aside the curtains, finding the sun blindingly bright and yellow, the same as it was every other morning. The wind was calm, the world just as she had left it when she went to bed. She breathed a sigh of relief and opened her bedroom door. Her little sister, Jamey, walked into the bathroom. “Not so fast!” Lil said.
Lil threw her arms around her little sister, spinning her around in a hug.
“I have to go the bathroom, Lil.” Jamey untangled herself from her sister’s embrace.
“Lil, is that you? Are you awake?” Her mother’s voice echoed through the house. Lil released her tight hold on her sister and ran down the hallway. Once downstairs, Lil felt relieved to see her mother.
“Are you feeling all right, dear?”
“I had the strangest dream,” Lil said with a sigh, plopping down at the kitchen table in front of a bowl of cereal. She lifted the spoon and stared down, confused by her fingernails. Her pinky finger was painted midnight blue with a yellow bolt of lightning etched into the center. “Mom.” Her voice hitched at this reminder of her dream. It couldn’t be real, could it? Lil didn’t remember painting her nails last night. A knot grew in her stomach.
“We’ll talk when I get home.” Lil’s mother planted a soft kiss to her daughter’s forehead. “I’ve got to head out for work; I’m running late. Mrs. Henley is going to come by in a few minutes to make sure Jamey gets off to school when you leave.”
“I know, Mom.” It was the everyday routine. Except for the painted nail, everything seemed ordinary. Lil emitted a heavy sigh, rubbing her forehead and trying to comprehend what had happened. Her dreams never meant anything. In fact, most of the time, she couldn’t remember them at all. It was strange for her to have such a vivid, realistic dream. Lil watched her mother grab her keys and purse and head out the front door.
“Bye,” Lil whispered.
Jamey stalked down the stairs and leaned on the railing. “Are you still being weird?”
“You’re the weird one,” Lil said, lifting her head and taking another bite of breakfast.
“Is Bray coming by and taking you to school?” Jamey grinned, walking closer to the table and brushing her long blonde locks into two pigtails.
Bray lived across the street from Lil. They were best friends, practically inseparable. “No. He went in early for cross-country. What’s that look for?” Lil finished the last bite of cereal.
Her sister came to stand in front of her. “Lil and Bray sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S—”
As Lil stood up, Jamey stopped mid-sentence. Jamey didn’t wait for Lil’s reaction. She tore up the stairs, just as the doorbell sounded.
“I guess I’ll get the door.” Lil rolled her eyes and left her empty bowl on the table. She walked to the front door, and noticing a folded blueprint, she bent down. Her mother must have dropped it on her way out of the house. After picking the plan up, Lil unlocked the door, letting Mrs. Henley into the house. She walked back to the kitchen with the strange paper. What was her mother working on?
* * *
Lil sat inside the classroom at Twain High, her eyes scanning everywhere but the front by the blackboard. She had never been overly eager for school. It wasn’t that she was dumb, quite the opposite. She’d been bored and the teachers had never attempted to challenge her. Her gaze dropped to her hand, and she put her pen down. One distinctive mark remained from her dream. It made no sense. How she could have been someplace else? It had to have been a dream. Right?
Frustrated, she let out a heavy sigh. Her mind wandered, and she glanced out the window. In the distance, she saw it—the slightest ripple and flash in the forest preserve just across the lawn. She had just walked through there earlier that morning on her way into school. Lil jumped in her seat. No one seemed to notice. Her eyes widened. Just beyond the trees, a figure stood tall in blue jeans and a blue-striped, button-down shirt.
Who are you? She shook her head as she glanced back at her English teacher, Ms. Lee. Her back was to Lil, so she shifted in her seat and peered out the window at the stranger not more than a dozen yards away. He approached through the trees until he came as far as the clearing. He leaned his back onto a trunk and nodded toward Lil, just once. Lil pinched herself, making sure she was awake. Had she fallen asleep in class? He gestured for her to come outside, letting her know he was there for her.
Lil gasped. Her palms grew sweaty, and her heart raced. A surge of adrenaline spiked through her, causing an overload of symptoms. Her stomach ached; her hands trembled. If she didn’t calm her nerves, she’d vomit in English class. Would there be anything more embarrassing than the entire class witnessing her humiliation? “Ms. Lee, I need to use the bathroom!” Before her teacher could tell her otherwise, Lil jumped up from her seat and grabbed the wooden hall pass. She rushed out of the building, leaving the wooden slot in the doorjamb to allow her access back in through the locked doors. The cool air helped, but it didn’t keep the world from spinning wildly around her. Each step felt as though the distance grew farther apart. Maybe she was crazy for chasing after a dream, but she needed answers. The stranger from her dream, the boy she had just seen outside the window, wasn’t there anymore. He had vanished. It made no sense. He wanted her to see him, didn’t he? Who was he? Why was he looking for her?
“Where are you?” Lil called out into the forest. She didn’t dare set foot any closer. Not for fear of the woods, but knowing she couldn’t without risking trouble. She needed to be back in the classroom in two minutes, or Ms. Lee would issue her a detention. “I’m not giving up so easily.” She would get her answers, one way or another. Lil turned and strode back toward the building, retrieving her wooden hall pass, before slumping back behind her desk. She hated school, and this mystery made it much more difficult to focus on the lessons in class.
* * *
“What are you doing here?” Hudson stalked down the stairs of the academy, catching sight of Rawlie at the bottom of the staircase.
“We need to talk.”
“Whatever you think we need to talk about, it’s not happening. Go home. You’re needed with Willow far more than we need you.” Hudson brushed past Rawlie, knocking his shoulder. “You’ll get us all killed.” He had little faith in anyone else. Hudson had grown accustomed to living at Nightblood Academy, protecting Arianna and living nearly alone. It had been the two of them for quite some time.
Rawlie was no stranger to the academy, but Hudson didn’t want him there.
“It’s time we bring her over here.”
Hudson stormed passed Rawlie and into the training room. He needed to get his mind focused and ready for battle. “Willow and Jamie? You know that isn’t an option. They need to stay put. There are protections on that house.”
“That’s not the girl I’m talking about,” Rawlie said. He stood his ground, refusing to back down. He grabbed a sword from the closet and handed one to Hudson. “She should have arrived years ago when this place was still thriving with students.”
The academy had long since been abandoned, the school nearly destroyed.
He lifted the metal blade, waiting for his opponent to do the same. “Lucky for her, she had a future, at least for eight years. Listen, I know it’s dangerous, but she’s already found her way over once. It’s only a matter of time until she comes here again on her own. What then? I’m not asking. I’m going with Willow to retrieve her. I’d like your help in training her,” Rawlie said.
“That’s why you’re really here, isn’t it?” Hudson clanked his blade against Rawlie’s sword, knocking him back several steps. “What if I say no?” He didn’t want an outsider among them. It posed too much of a risk. Besides, he had spent years reading the texts at the academy, how could he catch up an outsider in a matter of days or even weeks? He’d had eight years to prepare for war and he felt nowhere near ready. This girl, she wasn’t their savior.
“You won’t. Not once she’s here.”
* * *
After school let out, Bray drove Lil home. Lil had turned eighteen three months ago, and she still didn’t have a car, but the day Bray had turned sixteen, his uncle had pulled up in a beat-up blue Moskvich and tossed him the keys. He still had that car senior year and treated it like his baby.
“Looking forward to the weekend?” Bray asked.
“I don’t have anything planned.” She’d been waiting all day to tell him about this morning. She’d seen him briefly for lunch but hadn’t wanted to garner unwanted attention. “The strangest thing happened to me this morning.” Lil studied Bray’s profile as he focused on the road. The drive home was slow. They only lived a few miles from school, close enough to walk through Twain Forest, but no roads cut through.
“Go on,” Bray said. They were inching through Main Street. He rolled down the windows, letting fresh air into the car. With the windows down, the car’s rumble grew much louder.
“Look at this!” Lil held up her right hand, showing him the one finger with distinctive nail polish. She wasn’t capable of such intricate detail. It was stunning.
Bray looked at her hand before returning his focus to the traffic ahead of him. “Okay, you painted your fingernail.”
“I didn’t do this.” Lil gestured with her left hand. “I dreamt about it. I’ve never had a dream where I woke up and something from it was real.” She hoped he didn’t think she’d gone off the deep end. How could he not think that, though? She sounded crazy!
“It’s weird, but maybe you were sleepwalking. Or sleep nail-painting?” he joked. “I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for what happened. You have a little sister; she probably played a prank on you.”
Lil wanted to believe everything was normal, but the dream felt real. She didn’t tell him how it frightened her—the sky, the wind, the creature that landed on her house. “I don’t think so. It gets stranger, Bray. During English class, I saw this guy from my dream. Outside. He stood by the clearing. I took a hall pass and went out after him, but he was already gone when I got there.”
“You did what? That’s stupid. He could be a psychopath luring you into the forest. Did anyone else see him?”
“I’m not hallucinating.” She crossed her arms and stared out the side window. “The guy I saw was definitely from my dream.”
Bray sighed. “Maybe he was. Is it possible you’ve seen him around town and then dreamt about him?”
“If that were true, how would it explain my fingernail?”
“I’m sure whatever it was won’t happen again.”
“I hope you’re right.” Lil didn’t want to revisit the dream world.
“I can crash at your place tonight. My dad’s working all weekend, and Mom doesn’t even notice when I’m not home.” Bray turned right, into the Cedar Heights subdivision, away from the stream of traffic.
“Are you sure?” Lil’s face perked up a bit at the thought of Bray staying over for the night. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t spent countless nights at her house while they were kids. They’d been best friends as long as Lil could remember, and they shared a ton of things in common, including movies, junk food, and video games.
“I promise that if any weird dreams happen, I will be there to witness them and protect you,” Bray said. “Could be fun, trying to get into the mind of Willow Porter.”
Lil hated being called by her given name. “You are not getting into my mind, Braylon Presul!” She laughed. “You can hang out, but if you so much as try to suggest any dreams to me…” She held up a finger at him, warning him she wouldn’t put up with any dream manipulation.
Bray grinned. “Don’t call me Braylon.” He nudged her. “And you have a deal. Do you want to hang out now too?” He pulled up in front of his house and put the car in park, waiting for her answer.
“Yes. I thought you’d never ask.” Lil grinned. He always knew how to distract her. “Grab your bag. I’m holding you hostage for tonight.”
“Are you sure your mom won’t mind if I stay over?”
Lil always asked permission before inviting friends over, both out of respect for her parents and because she had to. “She has this rule that no boys are allowed to stay over but you.” A hint of a smile formed on Lil’s lips. “She finds you harmless, and besides, she loves your parents.” They grabbed their school bags and walked across the street. Lil unlocked the front door and opened it, stepping inside. “She’ll say yes, and Dad leaves everything up to her. Mom!” She laughed, shaking her head. She had forgotten her mother wasn’t home. “Oh right. She’s got work today.”
“Your mom’s working again?” Bray asked. “That’s good, right? Gets her out of the house?”
Lil dropped her bag and shoes by the door. She walked into the kitchen and nodded. “Yeah, but I have to watch Jamey and start dinner.” She hated babysitting her little sister. She only had one sibling, but it was one too many.
“Oh, such a tough life. Jamey isn’t that bad. What’s your mom doing anyway?”
“Your dad got her a job at the Awareness Initiative.” Bray’s father worked for a technology company in Cosima. They were at the cutting edge of innovation, or so they claimed. Lil didn’t quite understand what they were doing—and most projects were top secret, which ensured she’d never find out. But that didn’t stop her from repeatedly asking.
Bray frowned. “Really? Your mom has a degree in science?”
“Yes, girls can be just as smart as boys. Don’t you forget that,” she warned.
Bray held up his hands in surrender. “I was not implying otherwise. I just don’t remember your mom ever being interested in science or talking with my dad about it.”
Lil paused. She couldn’t recall a discussion between their parents about anyone’s profession. It wasn’t that she cared, though. Most of the time when Lil and Bray were together, they hung out, joked around, and had fun. They rarely paid attention to their parents. Besides, if her mother’s projects were hush-hush, she was certain Bray’s father’s were as well. “Okay, you have me on that one. I do remember Mom telling me your dad got her a job.”
“Mind if I start up the game, Death Run?” Bray asked.
“Yes.” Lil laughed. “You don’t get a head start, and I want a snack. Are you hungry?”
Bray snuck up behind Lil in the kitchen, startling her. “When aren’t I?” His breath tickled her neck.
Lil let out an anxious breath. A current of butterflies oscillated through her at his proximity. It wasn’t as though they’d never stood close. In fact, Bray was always the boy who offered to put suntan lotion on her back when they went swimming at the community pool. She didn’t think anything of it. They were best friends. She pushed all thoughts aside. “Fine, fine.” Lil opened the cabinets, leaving it up to Bray to decide what to eat. “Help yourself,” she said, slipping away, trying to hide her discomfort.
Bray seemed oblivious as he glanced through the cabinets. “Don’t I always?” He pulled out chips, pretzels, and snack mix. Lil gave him a look.
“What? You said help yourself.”
Lil laughed. “Yes, but I didn’t say eat all our food.” She rolled her eyes and shut the cabinets behind him.
“Semantics.” Bray grabbed the bags of junk food, taking them into the living room where the video game console was. “When does your sister get home?”
“Around four.” Lil checked the clock. “If the bus is on time. You know how the good ol’ Cosima Public Transportation system is… crappy as ever.” There were two hours of free time until Lil had to entertain Jamey, which consisted of sitting her in front of the television and putting a movie on.
Bray powered up the console while Lil turned on the television. “It’s Missouri,” Bray said. “What do you expect? At least you don’t have to pick her up every day.”
“Put the game on. It’s time for you to lose to a girl.” The grin never left her face as she plopped down on the sofa, controller in hand.
Two hours later, Lil paused the game with a frown. “Did you hear something?” She glanced around the room. Not seeing anyone, she shook her head, returning to the game at hand.
“I think that was your sister.” Bray caught sight of the muddy shoes in the foyer. “Must be raining, or she fell in a swamp.” There weren’t any swamps in Missouri, let alone on the way home from the bus stop. The room darkened, but Lil didn’t notice. She was focused on winning.
“Must be.” Lil shrugged, pushing harder and faster on the controls as her character in the game died. She cursed beneath her breath. “I can’t believe you distracted me!”
“I distracted you?” Bray asked with a smile. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You didn’t even notice Jamey.”
Lil turned off the console and stood, stretching as she glanced up toward the balcony. After a moment, she heard a commotion upstairs and eyed her watch. “I should put on dinner.” She headed for the kitchen. Thunder rumbled in the distance. “Clean up the living room, will you?”
“Me?” Bray grabbed the half-eaten bags of snacks and lifted them into his arms, carrying them back into the kitchen. “I’m the guest. You should be waiting on me.”
Lil stopped and turned around. Bray’s hands were full with the half-eaten bags of junk food. “Don’t hold your breath.”
Bray grumbled, pushing past Lil as he juggled the bags and opened the cabinets, placing the snacks back where they belonged.
After several hours of video games, junk food, and dinner, both Bray and Lil found themselves in front of the television, watching movie after movie. Her parents had come home late, cleaned up the dinner dishes, and gone to bed. Bray and Lil struggled to stay awake. “I swear I’m not tired.” Lil said, fighting the urge to sleep. After the previous night, she didn’t want to shut her eyes, afraid what she’d seen this morning hadn’t been a dream.
“I’m not going anywhere. I told you that, and I meant it.” Bray shifted closer beside her, both of them buried in blankets on the living room floor.
The upstairs hallway creaked, and Lil turned around, glancing up toward the balcony loft where Jamey hid behind the railing. “Jamey, go to bed!” Lil hissed.
“I’m not tired,” Jamey whined, climbing down the stairs, her hands playing with the banister railing as she peeked into the living room at them. “Can I watch a movie with you?”
“No.” Lil shook her head. “It’s late.”
“Lil’s right, Jamey.” Bray pushed himself up from the pillow. “It is way past your bedtime.”
“You two are no fun.” Jamey pouted, crossing her arms as she stomped back up the stairs.
“Bet that’ll wake your parents.” Bray shifted and put his head back down on the pillow.
Lil laughed. “I doubt it. Those two can sleep through anything.”
“I bet that’s what they want you to think, so they don’t have to deal with your sister.” He smiled, pointing up toward Jamey where she crouched once again in the loft.
Lil’s voice rose. “Go to bed, Jamey!”
Jamey scampered off down the hall and shut the bedroom door behind her.
Lil shifted back down, resting her head on the pillow. Bray reached for the remote, shutting the television off as the credits of the forgotten movie rolled in the background.
“I’m still not tired.” Lil stared at Bray in the darkness.
“You have to fall asleep eventually.” He reached out, his hand brushing a stray hair from Lil’s eyes.
His touch caused her to jump slightly, not sure what he was doing. He hardly ever showed any signs of affection. They were friends, video game buddies. That was it.
“If you have a nightmare, and I’m sure you won’t, I’ll be right here.”
Lil nodded. “I know. I’m sure I’ll be fine.” Lil yawned, her eyelids growing heavy. “I didn’t tell you about the rest of the dream. There was a girl who looked exactly like me.”
Bray smiled. “Then it must have been a dream, because your only sister is several years younger than you.”
Lil slid a hand beneath the pillow as she closed her eyes. “I guess so. Goodnight.”
* * *
“Willow’s gone,” the young boy said, staring up at Rawlie as he unlocked the front door and stepped inside their home.
“What do you mean, gone?” Rawlie asked. Nothing looked touched, the house remained quiet and calm. When he had left to speak with Hudson, Jamie and Willow were locked within the confines of her home, safe and secure, a protection spell keeping them from danger.
“She just walked out the front door. It was like she was spellbound.” Jamie’s voice hitched as he spoke, trying not to panic. “I tried to stop her. It seemed like she couldn’t hear me. What do we do?”
“How long ago did she leave?” Maybe he still had time to catch up to her, discover what was going on.
“It hasn’t been long. A few minutes, I think? I can’t remember.”
His best friend had been cautious as long as he’d known her. What had transpired that put her life in risk and where she’d abandon her younger brother? It was uncharacteristic of her, unless she believed Jamie was in mortal danger. She would do anything for her younger brother. After their parents died, Jamie had been her entire world. There was no way that would have changed.
“I’ll find her,” Rawlie said, “just hold tight. Don’t go anywhere.”
* * *
Lil shifted onto her back, rolling around as the morning light stirred her awake along with the soft sound of footsteps against the floorboards. “Bray?” Lil mumbled, half-asleep, knowing if he was beside her, then she wasn’t dreaming.
“Hmm?” He refused to open his eyes and wake up just yet. He was not a morning person.
Lil breathed a sigh of relief, grateful she hadn’t experienced any weird dreams. Perhaps whatever had happened was a simple oddness in passing with no explanation. It didn’t explain the boy outside school during English class, but she pushed that thought aside. Her eyes opened and she caught a glimpse of her mother heading into the kitchen. It was earlier than she expected to see her, but stranger things had happened. If she expected anyone, it was her sister, but Jamey had been up late and was probably still asleep. Lil slipped out from her blankets and pattered off to the kitchen.
“You’re awake early,” her mother said.
“Looks like I’m not the only one.” It seemed like Lil never saw her these days.
Her mom smiled, dropping a kiss to Lil’s head. “You and I need to talk later.”
Lil rolled her eyes, assuming it had to do with Bray spending the night. “It’s just Bray.” Lil didn’t see the big deal in him spending the night. “We’re friends. We have been as long as I can remember. Don’t turn this into something that it’s not.”
Lil’s mother sighed, watching her daughter, but she let the subject drop. “I have somewhere to be.” She glanced at her watch. “Your father should be up soon to make breakfast. I want you to take a look at this later.” She handed Lil a brochure for Nightblood Academy.
“You want me to attend a boarding school?” Her mother couldn’t be serious. She didn’t have the best grades, but she showed up, she did the assignments, well, most of them. “It’s my senior year, Mom. You’re going to move me now?” Was she serious? It made no sense!
“It’s not for you. I want to enroll Jamey next year. I want your opinion. If you think it’d be good for her.”
It sounded like a creepy prep school. What kind of academy was her mom sending Jamey to? “You care what I think?” Lil couldn’t believe it. “Are you trying to get rid of us both next year? I’ll be going to college, and Jamey, you want to send her away to school?”
“I want to protect her. She’s young and easily influenced. I don’t want to see her make the same mistakes you made.”
Lil frowned. “Of course, you don’t want her to become like me. The screw up. Is that why you’re burying yourself in work?” Her mom hadn’t worked weekends in a long time.
“I’m doing what’s best for my children, even when they’re nearly grown and out of the house,” her mother said. “I have a big project that I can’t discuss. I want to make sure Jamey is cared for properly while I’m at work. You won’t be here next year, and my work load is getting heavier.”
Lil didn’t bother to inform her mother that she hadn’t applied to any colleges, yet. She doubted she had the grades or test scores to get her into a four-year university. Besides, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. Couldn’t she take a semester or the year off before pursuing community college?
“Maybe Nightblood Academy is best for Jamey,” Lil said, chewing her bottom lip raw. “It’s not like you guys ever cared what happened to me.”
“That’s not true, Lil. A lot is happening, and I can’t get into it. Listen, keep this between the two of us. I don’t want to worry your sister. I’ll see you later. Stay out of trouble,” she warned, before grabbing her keys and heading out the front door.
Lil tiptoed back into the living room, careful not to wake Bray.
“Hey, how’d you sleep?” Bray’s voice rasped from the comfort of his blankets on the floor.
It seems he was up anyhow. Had he heard any of the conversation between her mother and her? “Fine.” The dreams seemed the least of her troubles now that her mother had shoved a brochure for some pretentious academy at her. Worse, she felt left out for not being given the opportunity to attend such an elite school. Why did she even feel jealous? In less than a year, she’d be done with school. She never wanted to step foot in the halls of another institution as long as she lived.
“You seem distracted,” Bray said.
Lil glanced down at her fingernails. The polish was still there. She’d never bothered to find the nail polish remover. Would it even take the polish off? She picked at her nail, finding it impossible to chip away.
“Everything okay?” Bray asked, sitting up on the floor. “I thought I heard your mom.”
Lil nodded and sat beneath the covers, keeping herself warm. “Yeah. No.” She couldn’t lie to him; he was her best friend. “Mom wants to send Jamey to some stupid boarding school next year.”
Bray remained quiet.
“What?” Lil asked. “Don’t tell me you agree with her?”
“Jamey’s never been great with making friends. You’ll be gone and out of the house, I assume. Maybe it would be a good transition for your little sister.”
“Maybe.” Lil couldn’t tell if it was jealousy or something else bubbling inside of her.