The phone continued to ring, ignorant of my pain. The lyrics of Tupac’s “Dear Mama” that Joseph had programmed for my ringtone indicated the culprit.
“I’m sorry, I have to—”
“Wait—” Noah started.
My heart galloped in my chest and only partly from surprise. Noah’s lips were inches away from my face, my phone was protesting in my hand, and I was in trouble.
I MUSTERED UP EVERY OUNCE OF FREE WILL I HAD and extracted myself from his car. I gave him a halfhearted wave as I shut the door behind me. I answered the phone.
“Mara! Where are you?” My mother sounded frantic.
I turned the key in the ignition of Daniel’s car and glanced at the clock. I was seriously late. Not good.
“I’m driving home now.” My tires squealed as I reversed out of the spot, and almost hit a parked black Mercedes in the spot behind me.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
She was counting every nanosecond I hesitated, so I went with the truth. “I found a starving dog near the school and she was in really bad shape so I had to take her to the vet.” There.
There was silence on her end before she finally asked, “Where is it now?”
Some jerk honked behind me as I turned onto the expressway. “Where is what?”
“The dog, Mara.”
“Still at the vet.”
“How did you pay for it?”
“I didn’t—a classmate saw me and he took me to his mom, a vet, and she treated her for free.”
“That’s convenient,” she said.
There it was; that edge to her voice. I was in it, and deep. I didn’t respond.
“I’ll see you when you get home,” my mother said. Abruptly.
I was not looking forward to it, but I slammed on the gas at the first opportunity anyway. I dared the cops to pull me over, pushing ninety when I could. I wove in and out of lanes at every opportunity. I ignored the irritated honking. Miami was infecting me.
It wasn’t long before I pulled into the driveway at home. I crept into the house like a criminal, hoping to be able to sneak into my room without being seen, but my mother was perched on the arm of the sofa in the sunken living room. She’d been waiting for me. Neither of my brothers was within sight or hearing. Curse them.
“Let’s talk.” Her expression was unnaturally calm. I braced myself for the onslaught.
“You have to answer the phone when I call. Every time.”
“I didn’t realize it was you calling before. I didn’t recognize the number.”
“It’s my office number, Mara. I told you to program it in as soon as we moved, and left you a voice mail.”
“I didn’t have time to listen to it. Sorry.”
My mother leaned forward, and her eyes searched my face. “Is there really a dog?”
I stared straight back into them, defiant. “Yes.”
“So if I call the vet’s office tomorrow morning and ask about it, they’ll confirm?”
“You don’t trust me?”
My mother didn’t respond. She just sat there, eyebrows raised, waiting for me to say something.
I gritted my teeth, then spoke. “The vet’s name is Dr. Shaw, and her office near school,” I said. “I don’t remember the street address.”
Her expression didn’t change.
I was sick of this. “I’m going to my room,” I said. When I turned around, she let me go.
I closed the door a bit too forcefully. Trapped in my room, I couldn’t delay thinking about what happened today any longer. Noah. Mabel. Her owner. His death.
Things were changing. Sweat pebbled my skin, even though I knew it wasn’t possible. It wasn’t possible. I was in class at nine this morning, when that bastard died. He had to have died earlier. The coroner, or whoever he was, was wrong. Even he’d said he was just guessing.
That was it. I imagined my conversation with him. I’d thought he snuck up on me too quietly, but he didn’t sneak up on me at all. He was already dead. The whole thing was just another hallucination—par for the course, really, considering my PTSD.
But still. Today felt … different. Confirmation that I was now crazier than I’d known it was possible for me to be. My mother worked with only the mildly disturbed. I was full on delusional. Abnormal. Psychotic.
When I joined my family for dinner that night, I felt strangely, disturbingly calm as I ate, as if watching the whole thing from a distance. I even managed to be polite to my mother. In a way, it was oddly comforting, the conviction of my insanity. The man died before I met him this morning. Wait, no—I never met him. I invented the conversation between us to give me a feeling of power over the situation in which I felt powerless; my mother’s words, but they sounded about right. I was powerless to bring Rachel back, she’d said, after I was released from the hospital. Right before she mentioned—pushed—the idea of counseling and/or drugs to help me cope. And of course now, I was powerless to leave Florida and go back home. But a skinny, neglected, abandoned dog was something I could fix.
So that was it, then. I was truly crazy. But then why did I feel like there was something else? Something I was missing?
My mother’s laughter at the dinner table brought me back to the present. Her whole face lit up when she smiled, and I felt guilty for freaking her out. I decided not to tell her about my little adventure today; if she watched me any closer, she’d turn into the Eye of Sauron. And then she’d follow through on her threat of therapy and medication. Neither option sounded particularly appealing, and really, now that I knew what was happening, I could deal with it.
Until I fell asleep.
WE PULLED INTO A LONG DRIVEWAY guarded by a rusting iron gate. Thick branches of leafless trees twisted over the car, rasping in the wind. Our headlights provided the only light on the silent road. Despite the artificial heat, I shivered.
Jude put his arm around me and turned down Death Cab on the speakers. I looked out the window. The headlights flashed over an idling car about twenty feet away, and I instantly recognized it as Claire’s. The glass was fogged and she cut the engine as we pulled up. I reached for the door and Jude reached for my waist. I gritted my teeth. I was already on edge, and wasn’t up to fending him off again tonight.
I twisted away. “They’re waiting for us.”
He didn’t let me go. “You sure you’re ready?” He looked skeptical.