I made a face as I read the title out loud. “One Thousand Obscure Words on the SAT?”
“Better get cracking,” my brother said. “They’re only a couple of months away.”
“Are you serious? I was just pulled out of school.”
“Temporarily. For health reasons. Which, by the way, is how Dad got the principal to change your F in Spanish to an Incomplete, so this Horizons thing is not a total loss. You can start your SAT prep now and take them in June, just in case you want to retake in October.”
I said nothing. Things like grades and SATs seemed utterly alien compared to my current problems. And I hated that we could talk so easily—so normally—about books and school and anything but what was really going on with me. I watched my brother write, the words flowing from his pen without hesitation. Give Daniel an abstract problem, and he can solve it in seconds.
Which gave me an idea.
“You know,” I said slowly, “there is something I wanted to talk to you about.”
He lifted his eyebrows. Put his notebook down.
“Don’t move,” I told him, then bolted to my room. I grabbed a notebook and a pen off of my desk and ran back to the living room. I couldn’t tell my brother about my real problems because my brother didn’t believe they were real.
But if I told him they weren’t real, maybe he could actually help.
I WALKED BACK INTO THE LIVING ROOM AND GLANCED out the enormous picture window. Still no sign of Noah’s car. Good. He’d never go for this.
I sat down on the couch and positioned the spiral notebook conspicuously on my lap. “So,” I said to my brother casually, “At Horizons, they gave us this assignment,” I started, my lie beginning to develop. “To, uh, fictionalize our . . . problems.” That sounded about right. “They said writing is cathartic.” Mom’s favorite word.
My brother broke into a smile. “That sounds . . . fun?”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Okay, so maybe fun’s the wrong word.”
“ ‘Stupid’ would be more appropriate,” I said, adding an eye roll. “They want us to work things out in a safe, creative space. I don’t know.”
My brother nodded slowly. “It makes sense. Sort of like puppet therapy for little kids.”
“I don’t know what that is, and I’m glad.”
Daniel chuckled. “Mom told me about it once—the therapist uses a puppet to indirectly address the kid’s feelings in an impersonal way; the child transfers her feelings to the puppet. Your assignment sounds like the teen version.”
Sure. “Exactly. So, now I have to write this story thing about me but not me, and I need help.”
“It would be my utmost pleasure.” Daniel hunched forward and rubbed his hands together. He was into it. “So. What’s your premise?”
Where to begin? “Well . . . something weird is happening to this girl. . . .”
Daniel placed his hand in his chin and glanced up at the ceiling. “Fairly standard,” he said. “And familiar.” He grinned.
“And she doesn’t know what it is.”
“Okay. Is it something supernatural weird, or something normal weird?”
“Supernatural weird,” I said, without hesitation.
“How old is she?”
“Right, of course,” he said with a wink. “Does anyone else know what’s happening to her?”
Just Noah, but he was as lost in this as I was. And everyone else I tried to tell didn’t believe me. “She’s told other people, but no one believes her,” I said.
Daniel nodded sagely. “The Cassandra effect. Cursed by Apollo with prophetic visions that always came true, but were never believed by anyone else.”
Close enough. “Right.”
“So everyone thinks your ‘protagonist’ is crazy,” he said, making air quotes with his fingers.
Everyone does seem to. “Pretty much.”
A smile appeared on Daniel’s lips. “But she’s an unreliable narrator who happens to be telling the truth?”
Seems that way. “Yep.”
“Okay,” he said. “So what’s really happening to you—I mean, her?”
“She doesn’t know, but she has to find out.”
Because she’s a murderer. Because she’s losing her mind. Because she’s being tormented by someone who should be dead.
I studied my brother. His posture was relaxed, his arms draped casually over either side of the patterned black and gold armchair. Daniel would never believe that the things that were happening to me, the things I could do, were real—aside from Noah, who would?—but it was important to make sure he thought I didn’t believe they were real either. I had to make sure he didn’t think I believed my own fiction, or I would set off his alarms.
So I lolled my head back and looked at the ceiling. Stay casual, stay vague. “Someone’s after her—”
“Your antagonist, good . . .”
“And she’s getting worse. She needs to figure out what’s going on.”
Daniel leaned his chin on his hand and raised his eyebrows. “How about an Obi-Wan slash Gandalf slash Dumbledore slash Giles?”
Daniel shook his head sadly. “I hate that I never managed to persuade you to watch Buffy. It’s a flaw in you, Mara.”
“Add it to the list.”
“Anyway,” he went on, “throw in a wise and mysterious character to swoop in and help you—I mean, your heroine—along on her quest, either by offering much-needed guidance or by taking her on as his pupil.”
I should be so lucky. “There’s no Dumbledore.”
“Or go really old-school and pull a Tiresias,” he said, nodding to himself. “From Oedipus.”
I shot him a look. “I know who Tiresias is.”
But Daniel ignored me. He was getting excited. “Make him blind but able to ‘see’ more than she can. I like that.”
“Yeah, Daniel, I get it, but there’s no mysterious figure.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “You just started working on it, Mara. Make one up.”
I clenched my teeth.
“Wait a second,” Daniel said quickly, rubbing his hands together. “Are you going to make her an orphan?”
“Well, if you don’t, you can have her family help,” he said and grinned. “You could give her a profoundly insightful and knowledgeable older brother.”