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I wantedsomeone different, someone I could talk to about something other than parties and getting crowned atwinter formal. A girl who was smart, or funny, or at least a decent lab partner.

Maybe a girl like that was the real dream, but a dream was still better than a nightmare. Even ifthe nightmare was wearing a cheerleading skirt. I survived chemistry, but my day only got worse from there. Apparently, I was taking U. Historyagain this year, which was the only history taught at Jackson, making the name redundant. Lee, norelation. But as we all knew, in spirit Mr. Lee and the famous Confederate general were one and thesame.

Lee was one of the few teachers who actually hated me. Lee had given me a D. Guessthe teachers actually did read the papers sometimes, after all. I found a seat in the back next to Link, who was busy copying notes from whatever class he hadslept through before this one. But he stopped writing as soon as I sat down. A musician. Maybe she shares my love a classical music.

Pink Floyd. Black Sabbath. The Stones. He passed out copies of the same syllabus he had probably been using forten years. Participating in an actual Civil War reenactment would be required. Of course it would. Icould just borrow a uniform from one of my relatives who participated in reenactments for fun on theweekends.

Lucky me. After the bell rang, Link and I hung out in the hall by our lockers, hoping to get a look at the newgirl. But the only thing we got a look at was too much ofCharlotte Chase in a jean skirt two sizes too small. Besides, you had to do something normal when bothof your parents were professors. It turned out I was good at basketball.

I always seemed to knowwhere the players on the other team were going to pass the ball, and it gave me a place to sit in thecafeteria every day. At Jackson, that was worth something. Today that seat was worth even more because Shawn Bishop, our point guard, had actually seen Link asked the only question that mattered to any of them.

Blond hair, fake tans, flip-flops, and jeanskirts so short they could pass for belts. Savannah was the legs, but Emily was the one all the guystried to get a look at in her bikini top, at the lake in the summer. They never seemed to have anybooks, just tiny metallic bags tucked under one arm, with barely enough room for a cell phone, for thefew occasions when Emily actually stopped texting.

Their differences boiled down to their respective positions on the cheer squad. Savannah was thecaptain, and a base: Emily was a flyer, the girl at the top of the pyramid, the one thrown five or six feetinto the air to complete a flip or some other crazy cheer stunt that could easily result in a broken neck.

Emily would risk anything to stay on top of that pyramid. When Emily gottossed, the pyramid went on fine without her. When Savannah moved an inch, the whole thing cametumbling down.

Ethan-Hating Emily noticed us staring and scowled at me. The guys laughed. Emory Watkinsclapped a hand on my back. You know Emily, the more she glares, the more shecares. I wanted to think about the opposite of Emily. Ever sinceLink had brought it up in history, it had stuck with me. The new girl. The possibility of someonedifferent, from somewhere different. Maybe someone with a bigger life than ours, and, I guess, mine. I knew it was a fantasy, but I wanted to believe it. Right now, they were on.

You gonna put her on the squad? You could never be too thin or too tan, as far as Savannahwas concerned. Emily sat down next to Emory, leaning over the table just a little too much. It was like she had sucked the air right out of the room. Acouple of the guys started laughing. Strike Three. She was out. The possibility of mydream girl showing up disappeared before I could even imagine our first date.

I was doomed to threemore years of Emily Ashers. Macon Melchizedek Ravenwood was the town shut-in. Carlton Eaton told my mom yesterday when he brought by our mail. The way everyone had something to sayabout everything you said or did or, in this case, wore. Two years, eight months, and counting.

I had to get out of this town. After school, the gym was being used for cheerleading tryouts. The rain had finally let up, sobasketball practice was on the outside court, with its cracked concrete and bent rims and puddles ofwater from the morning rain. You had to be careful not to hit the fissure that ran down the middle likethe Grand Canyon. Aside from that, you could almost see the whole parking lot from the court, andwatch most of the prime social action of Jackson High while you warmed up.

Today I had the hot hand. I was seven-for-seven from the free throw line, but so was Earl,matching me shot for shot. It seemed like I could just look at the net, and the ball would sail through. Somedays were like that. Earl was annoyed. I could tell by the way he was bouncing the ball harder andharder every time I made a shot. He was our other center. Our unspoken agreement was: There were only so many ways you could talk about the same girls and so many Slim Jimsyou could eat.

Maybe it was just genetics. Maybe it was something else. It was a wonder I made it to practice atall. Earl grunted behind me, bouncing the ball even harder. I tried not to smile andlooked over to the parking lot as I took the next shot. I saw a tangle of long black hair, behind thewheel of a long black car. A hearse. I froze. Then, she turned, and through the open window, I could see a girl looking in my direction.

Atleast, I thought I could. The basketball hit the rim, and bounced off toward the fence. Behind me, Iheard the familiar sound. Earl Petty could relax. As the car pulled away, I looked down the court. Just like they said. What a waste. I stoodthere, letting the rain hammer down on me. My wet hair hung in my eyes, blocking out the rest of theschool, the team. It was a girl. For a few minutes, I had let myself hope. That I would have someone to talk to, someone who really got me.

But all I had was a good day on the court, and that had never been enough. Usually, she kept my dinner warm for me until Igot home from practice, but not today. I was in a lot of trouble. Amma was furious, sitting at the tableeating Red Hots, and scratching away at the New York Times crossword.

She slid the plate in my direction, looking at me without looking at me. I shoveled cold mashedpotatoes and chicken into my mouth. There was nothing Amma hated like food left on your plate. Itried to keep my distance from the point of her special black 2 pencil, used only for her crosswords,kept so sharp it could actually draw blood.

Tonight it might. I listened to the steady patter of rain on the roof. Ammarapped her pencil on the table. I shoveleda spoonful of potatoes into my mouth. I knew what was coming. Nine across. As in, punish. She sharpenedher pencil, even though it was already sharp, grinding it into her old automatic sharpener on thecounter. She was still pointedly Not Looking at me, which was even worse than staring me right in theeye.

I walked over to where she was grinding and put my arm around her, giving her a good squeeze. It was pouring this morning. We got a new girl in our class. I guess itwas still on my mind. Lena Duchannes. Pronounced, in the South, to rhyme with rain. The way Amma rolled it out, you would have thoughtthe word had an extra syllable.

Amma pushed a glass of chocolate milk in my direction. Amma wasthe most respected tarot card reader within a hundred miles of Gatlin, just like her mother before herand her grandmother before her. Six generations of card readers.

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And Amma was nothing if not a force to be reckoned with. I had only asked what they were for once. My dad teased Amma whenever he foundone, but I noticed that he never took any of them down. He poured himself a cup of coffee and took abox of Shredded Wheat out of the pantry. I could see the yellow wax earplugs still stuck in his ears. The Shredded Wheat meant he was about to start his day.

Just curious. Thenshe shot me the Look, and was gone. Even my father noticed the kitchen door swinging in her wake, and pulled an earplug out of oneear. I studied his. My dad almost smiled, which was rare. Ifelt a surge of relief, maybe even accomplishment. The table, nicked and flecked with paint and glue andmarker from all the Wates leading up to me, was one of the oldest things in the house.

I smiled. My dad picked up his cereal bowl and waved his spoon in my direction. As in, more than you, Ethan Wate. Helooked even worse than usual. The shadows on his face were darker, and you could see the bonesunder his skin. His face was a pallid green from never leaving the house. He looked a little bit like aliving corpse, as he had for months now. It was hard to remember that he was the same person whoused to sit with me for hours on the shores of Lake Moultrie, eating chicken salad sandwiches andteaching me how to cast a fishing line.

Ten and two. Like the hands of aclock. He had really loved my mother. But so had I. My dad picked up his coffee and started to shuffle back toward his study. It was time to face facts. Stay and talk to me. He looked surprised, then shrugged. Still got a lot of work to do. Out of sync, our usual timing. Come to think of it, that had been my timing with most people lately. My dad pulled out the earplug, sighed, and pulled out the other.

The meter on our conversation was running out. Ijust stood in the doorway. I never set foot in there. Once, just once, when I was seven years old, my dad had caught mereading his novel before he had finished revising it. His study was a dark, frightening place. Therewas a painting that he always kept covered with a sheet over the threadbare Victorian sofa. I knewnever to ask what was underneath the sheet.

And books, old leather-bound books that were so heavy they rested on a huge woodenstand when they were open.

On the desk was his manuscript. It had been sitting there, in an open cardboard box, and I just hadto know what was in it. But every house in Gatlin was full of secrets, just like the South itself, andmy house was no exception, even back then. My dad had found me, curled up on the couch in his study, pages spread all around me like abottle rocket had exploded in the box. I just remember him yelling at me, and my mom coming out to find me cryingin the old magnolia tree in our backyard.

Even for grown-ups. That had always been my problem. Even now. I wanted to know whymy dad never came out of his study. But not tonight. Tonight I just wanted to remember chicken salad sandwiches and ten and two anda time when my dad ate his Shredded Wheat in the kitchen, joking around with me. I fell asleepremembering. Before the bell even rang the next day, Lena Duchannes was all everyone at Jackson could talk about.

From there it just gotwilder. There are two things you can always count on in Gatlin. They had business to attend to first. I slammed my locker door. Em was as delusional as Link, but not as harmless. He had a mean streak; allthe Watkinses did. Shawn shook his head. Shawn looked at me, confused. It was a stupid conversation, the same way it was stupid thatall the guys had to meet up before school on Wednesday mornings.

A few things were expected if you were on the team. You sat together in thelunchroom. You could bail on almost anything else, if you showed upfor roll call. Everyone actually stepped aside when she came down the hall. Like she was a rock star. Or a leper. But all I could see was a beautiful girl in a long gray dress, under a white track jacket with theword Munich sewn on it, and beat-up black Converse peeking out underneath.

A girl who wore along silver chain around her neck, with tons of stuff dangling from it—a plastic ring from a bubblegummachine, a safety pin, and a bunch of other junk I was too far away to see. She tucked her dark curls behind her ear, black nail polish catching the fluorescent light.

Herhands were covered with black ink, like she had written on them. She walked down the hall as if wewere invisible. I knew what they were thinking. For a second, they were thinking about dumping their girlfriendsfor the chance to hit on her. For a second, she was a possibility. Earl gave her the once-over, then slammed his locker door. The hallway, and everyone in it, hadlocked in on her as if she was a deer caught in the crosshairs.

But she just kept walking, her necklace jingling around her neck. Minutes later, I stood in the doorway of my English class. There she was. English, who squinted to read it. History for two periods, and I already took U. History at my old school. History, not the way Mr. Lee taught it. Take any open seat. English handed her a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. The new girl looked up and caught me watching her. I looked away, but it was too late.

I tried notto smile, but I was embarrassed, and that only made me smile more. It looked really old and worn, like she had read it more than once. Now I was staring. Wrong move. Everybody knew not to sit there. English had one glass eye, andthe terrible hearing you get if your family runs the only shooting range in the county.

Lenawas going to have to answer questions for the whole class.

She held it up like it was a dead mouse. Is that your name? Ithought it was Ravenwood. Are you a writer? Things were going to get interesting. Good-Eye Side. Emilylooked at me in disbelief. I was just as shocked as she was. Lena opened her notebook and ignored both of us. English looked up from her desk. Andnow, far enough from me. When the bell rang, I turned to Lena. Maybe I wasexpecting her to thank me.

It was a number. That was obvious. I had signed up for ceramics last spring because I had tofulfill my arts requirement, and I was desperate to stay out of band, which was practicing noisilydownstairs, conducted by the crazily skinny, overly enthusiastic Miss Spider. Savannah sat down nextto me. I was the only guy in the class, and since I was a guy, I had no idea what I was supposed to donext. Feel the clay. Free yourmind. And ignore the music from downstairs.

Feel your way to your soul. I sighed. This was almost as bad as band. I heard a violin, ormaybe one of those bigger violins, a viola, I think. It was beautiful and sad at the same time, and itwas unsettling.

There was more talent in the raw voice of the music than Miss Spider had ever had thepleasure of conducting. I looked around; no one else seemed to notice the music. The sound crawledright under my skin. I recognized the melody, and within seconds I could hear the words in my mind, as clearly as if Iwas listening to my iPod. But this time, the words had changed. Sixteen moons, sixteen yearsSound of thunder in your earsSixteen miles before she nearsSixteen seeks what sixteen fears….

As I stared at the spinning clay in front of me, the lump became a blur. The harder I focused on it, themore the room dissolved around it, until the clay seemed to be spinning the classroom, the table, mychair along with it. As if we were all tied together in this whirlwind of constant motion, set to therhythm of the melody from the music room.

The room was disappearing around me. Slowly, I reachedout a hand and dragged one fingertip along the clay. Then a flash, and the whirling room dissolved into another image— We were falling. I was back in the dream.

I saw her hand. I saw my hand grabbing at hers, my fingers digging intoher skin, her wrist, in a desperate attempt to hold on. But she was slipping; I could feel it, her fingerspulling through my hand. More than I had ever wanted anything. And then, she fell throughmy fingers…. Abernathy sounded concerned. I opened my eyes, and tried to focus, to bring myself back.

I stared at my gray, muddy hand,caked with drying clay. I looked at it more closely. It was hers. I looked under my nails, where I could see the clay I had clawed from her wrist. Abernathy put her hand on my shoulder,and I jumped. Outside the classroom window, I heard the rumble of thunder. I mashed the handprint with my fist, turning it back into alump of gray nothing.

I stood up, wiping my hands on my jeans as the bell rang. I grabbed mybackpack and sprinted out of the room, slipping in my wet high-tops when I turned the corner andalmost tripping over my untied laces as I ran down the two flights of stairs that stood between themusic room and me. I had to know if I had imagined it. I pushed open the double doors of the music room with both hands. The stage was empty. Theclass was filing past me. I was going the wrong way, heading downstream when everyone else wasgoing up.

I took a deep breath, but knew what I would smell before I smelled it. Down on the stage, Miss Spider was picking up sheet music, scattered along the folding chairs sheused for the sorry Jackson orchestra. Who was just playingthat—that song? A viola. Not her. I turned and ran before she could say the name. When the eighth-period bell rang, Link was waiting for me in front of the locker room.

He raked hishand through his spiky hair and straightened out his faded Black Sabbath T-shirt. I need your keys, man. She was like that, I could tellher anything. But she was gone, and my dad was holed up in his study all the time, and Amma wouldbe sprinkling salt all over my room for a month if I told her. I was on my own. Link held out his keys. Too late. The storm had been building all week. I needed to clear myhead and figure out what was going on, even if I had no idea where I was going.

I had to turn on the headlights to even drive out of the parking lot. Lightning sliced through the dark sky ahead ofme. I counted, as Amma had taught me years ago—one, two, three. I pulled up at the stoplight by Jackson, one of only three in town.

I had no idea what to do. Therain jackhammered down on the Beater. The radio was reduced to static, but I heard something. Icranked the volume and the song flooded through the crappy speakers. The song that had disappeared from my playlist.

The song no one else seemed to hear. The songLena Duchannes had been playing on the viola. The song that was driving me crazy. The light turned green and the Beater lurched into drive. I was on my way, and I had absolutely noidea where I was going. Lightning ripped across the sky. I counted—one, two. The storm was getting closer. I flipped onthe windshield wipers. It was no use. Lightning flashed. Thunder rumbled above the roof of the Beater, and the rain turned horizontal. Thewindshield rattled as if it could give way at any second, which, considering the condition of theBeater, it could have.

The storm was chasing me, and it had found me. I could barely keepthe wheels on the slick road, and the Beater started to fishtail, skating erratically back and forthbetween the two lanes of Route 9. I slammed on the brakes, spinning out into the darkness. The headlightsflickered, for barely a second, and a pair of huge green eyes stared back at me from the middle of theroad.

At first I thought it was a deer, but I was wrong. There was someone in the road! I pulled on the wheel with both hands, as hard as I could. My body slammed against the side of thedoor. Her hand was outstretched. I closed my eyes for the impact, but it never came. The Beater jerked to a stop, not more than three feet away. The headlights made a pale circle oflight in the rain, reflecting off one of those cheap plastic rain ponchos you can buy for three dollars atthe drugstore.

Slowly, she pulled the hood off her head, letting the rain run down her Green eyes, black hair. But tonight they lookeddifferent—different from any eyes I had ever seen. They were huge and unnaturally green, an electricgreen, like the lightning from the storm. I stumbled out of the Beater into the rain, leaving the engine running and the door open.

Adrenaline was pumping through my veins and my muscles were tense, asif my body was still waiting for the crash. I took a step toward her, and it hitme. Wet lemons. Wet rosemary. All at once, the dream started coming back to me, like wavescrashing over my head.

Only this time, when she slipped through my fingers—I could see her face. Green eyes and black hair. I remembered.

It was her. She was standing right in front of me. I had to know for sure. I grabbed her wrist. There they were: When I touched her, electricity ran throughmy body. Lightning struck the tree not ten feet from where we were standing, splitting the trunk neatlyin half. It began to smolder. Or just a terrible driver?

With something. Thanks to you. I ran to catch up with her. For the firsttime, I saw the long black car in the shadows.

The hearse, with its hood up. I was looking forsomeone to help me, genius. You could have just driven by. And the song. The weird song on my iPod. What song? Are you drunk, or is this some kind of joke? You have the marks on your wrist. I have a dog. Get over it. I could see the face from my dream so clearly now. She pulled up her hood and began the long walk to Ravenwood in the pouring rain. I caught upwith her. Call Anyway, my cell is dead. The The storm was picking up.

I had to shout over the howl of the rain. It could be hours before anyone else comes by. My mom had raised me better than that. Her hoodblew off. Now she wasshouting, too. Get in. With me. With you on the road, anyway. Link would lose it when he saw it. The storm sounded different once wewere in the car, both louder and quieter.

I could hear the rain pounding the roof, but it was nearlydrowned out by the sound of my heart beating and my teeth chattering. I pushed the car into drive. Iwas so aware of Lena sitting next to me, just inches away in the passenger seat. I snuck a look. Even though she was a pain, she was beautiful. Her green eyes were enormous.

She had the longest eyelashes I had ever seen, and her skinwas pale, made even paler by the contrast of her wild black hair. She had a tiny, light brownbirthmark on her cheekbone just below her left eye, shaped sort of like a crescent moon. She pulled the wet poncho over her head. Her gray vest dripped a steady stream of water onto the pleather seat.

I reached forward, and she froze. I could just make out a few numbers. Maybe a one or a seven, a five, a two. What was that about? I glanced in the backseat for the old army blanket Link usually kept back there. Instead there was aratty sleeping bag, probably from the last time Link got in trouble at home and had to sleep in his car.

It smelled like old campfire smoke and basement mold. I handed it to her. I could feel her ease into the warmth of the heater,and I relaxed, just watching her. The chattering of her teeth slowed. After that, we drove in silence. The only sound was the storm, and the wheels rolling and spraying through the lake the road hadbecome. She traced shapes on the foggy window with her finger.

But the harder I tried, the more it all seemed to fade away, into the rain and the highway and thepassing acres and acres of tobacco fields, littered with dated farm equipment and rotting old barns. We reached the outskirts of town, and I could see the fork in the road up ahead. It wasalso the way out of town.

When we came to the fork in the road, I automatically started to turn left, outof habit. The only thing to the right was Ravenwood Plantation, and no one ever went there. We climbed the hill up toward Ravenwood Manor, the great house.

I had been so wrapped up in who she was, I had forgotten who she was. She looked down at her hands. If she knew what everyone was saying about her. The uncomfortable look on her face said she did. I tried to think of something to say to break the silence.

Usually people are trying to get out of Gatlin; no one really moves here. I even lived in Barbados for a while. They died when I was two. She had to take a trip for a few months. Car accident. I spent most of my time tryingnot to talk about it. We stopped in front of a weather-beaten black wrought-iron gate. I turned off themotor. Now the storm had faded into a kind of soft, steady drizzle.

They had faded back to a less intense shade of green, and they were smaller somehow—notsmall, but more normal looking. I started to open my door, to walk her up to the house. My door was half open. Her door was half open. We were both getting even wetter, but we justsat there without saying anything. Nothing was makingany sense, but I knew one thing. Once I drove back down the hill and turned back onto Route 9,everything would change back. Everything would make sense again.

She spoke first. And the ride. I started to feelclaustrophobic, like I had to get out of there. She looked at me, shaking her head, and tossed the sleeping bag at me, a little too hard. The smilewas gone. I slammed the door. The sleeping bag lay on the seat. I picked it up to throw it into the back.

It still had the moldycampfire smell, but now it also smelled faintly of lemons and rosemary. I closed my eyes. When Iopened them, she was already halfway up the driveway. I rolled down my window. I shifted the car into reverse and drove back down to the fork in the road, so I could turn the way Iusually turned, and take the road I had taken my whole life.

Until today. I saw something shining fromthe crack in the seat. A silver button. When I woke up, the window was closed. No mud in my bed, no mysterious songs on my iPod.

Ichecked twice. Even my shower just smelled like soap. I lay in my bed, looking up at my blue ceiling, thinking about green eyes and black hair.

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Thats how I knew things had changed. That, and the burnt waffles smoking in the waffle iron. I should have been on my way to school, but instead I turned onto Route 9 and headed forRavenwood. Lena hadnt been back to school since before her birthday. After Macons death,Principal Harper had generously granted her permission to work at home with a tutor until she felt upto coming back to Jackson.

Considering he had helped Mrs. Lincoln in her campaign to get Lenaexpelled after the winter formal, Im sure he was hoping that would be the day after never. I admit, I was a little jealous. Lena didnt have to listen to Mr. AbbyPorter and I were the only ones sitting there now, so we had to answer all the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde questions in class. What prompts Dr. Jekyll to turn into Mr. Were they really anydifferent after all? Nobody had the slightest clue, which was the reason everyone on Mrs.

Englishsglass-eye side was sleeping. But Jackson wasnt the same without Lena, at least not for me. Thats why after two months, I wasbegging her to come back. Yesterday, when she said shed think about it, I told her she could thinkabout it on the way to school. I found myself back at the fork in the road. It was our old road, mine and Lenas. The one that hadtaken me off Route 9 and up to Ravenwood the night we met. The first time I realized she was thesame girl Id been dreaming about, long before she ever moved to Gatlin.

As soon as I saw the road, I heard the song. It drifted into the Volvo as naturally as if I had turnedon the radio. Same song. Same words. Same as it had for the last two months -- when I turned on myiPod, stared at the ceiling, or read a single page of Silver Surfer over and over, without even seeingit. Seventeen Moons.

Beautiful Creatures

It was always there. I tried turning the dials on the radio, but it didnt matter. Now it was playing in my head instead of coming out of the speakers, as if someone was Kelting thesong to me.

Seventeen moons, seventeen years, Eyes where Dark or Light appears, Gold for yes and green for no, Seventeen the last to know The song was gone.

I knew better than to ignore it, but I also knew how Lena acted every time Itried to bring it up. Its about us. Either way, it was the moment Lena usually switched from defense to offense, and theconversation veered off track. Dark or Light? Whether or not Im going to go all Sarafine on you? Ifyouve already decided Im going Dark, why dont you admit it? Until I learned not to sayanything at all. So we didnt talk about the song that was playing in my head, same as it was in hers.

We couldnt avoid it. The song had to be about Lenas Claiming, the moment she would become Light or Dark forever. Which could only mean one thing: Not yet. Gold for yes and green for no?

I knewwhat the song meant -- the gold eyes of a Dark Caster or the green eyes of a Light one. Since the nightof Lenas birthday, her Sixteenth Moon, I had tried to tell myself it was all over, that Lena didnt haveto be Claimed, that she was some kind of exception. Why couldnt it be different for her, sinceeverything else about her seemed to be so exceptional? But it wasnt different. Seventeen Moons was proof. Id heard Sixteen Moons for months beforeLenas birthday, a harbinger of things to come.

Now the words had changed again, and I was facedwith another eerie prophecy. There was a choice to be made, and Lena hadnt made it. The songsnever lied. At least, they hadnt yet. I didnt want to think about it. As I headed up the long rise leading to the gates of RavenwoodManor, even the grinding sound of the tires on gravel seemed to repeat the one inescapable truth. Ifthere was a Seventeenth Moon, then it had all been for nothing.

Macons death had been for nothing. Lena would still have to Claim herself for Light or Dark, deciding her fate forever. There was noturning back for Casters, no changing sides. And when she finally made her choice, half her familywould die because of it. The Light Casters or the Dark Casters -- the curse promised only one sidecould survive. But in a family where generations of Casters had no free will and had been Claimedfor Light or Dark on their own sixteenth birthdays without any say in the matter, how was Lenasupposed to make that kind of choice?

All she had wanted, her whole life, was to choose her own destiny.

Beautiful Darkness (Book 2)

Now she could, and it waslike some kind of cruel cosmic joke. I stopped at the gates, turned off the engine, and closed my eyes, remembering -- the rising panic,the visions, the dreams, the song. This time, Macon wouldnt be there to steal away the unhappyendings. There was nobody left to get us out of trouble, and it was coming fast. Lemons and AshWhen I pulled up in front of Ravenwood, Lena was sitting on the crumbling veranda, waiting. Shewas wearing an old button-down shirt and jeans and her beat-up Chuck Taylors.

For a second, itseemed as if it couldve been three months ago and today was just another day. But she was alsowearing one of Macons pinstriped vests, and it wasnt the same.

Now that Macon was gone,something about Ravenwood felt wrong. Or to my parents study without my mom. Ravenwood looked worse every time I came. Staring out at the archway of weeping willows, itwas hard to imagine the garden had deteriorated so quickly. Beds of the same kinds of flowers Ammahad painstakingly taught me to weed as a kid were fighting for space in the dry earth.

Beneath themagnolias, clusters of hyacinth were tangled with hibiscus, and heliotrope infested the forget-me-nots,as if the garden itself was in mourning. Which was entirely possible. Ravenwood Manor had alwaysseemed to have a mind of its own. Why should the gardens be any different? The weight of Lenasgrief probably wasnt helping. The house was a mirror for her moods, the same way it had alwaysbeen for Macons.

When he died, he left Ravenwood to Lena, and sometimes I wondered whether it would have beenbetter if he hadnt. The house was looking bleaker by the day, instead of better. Every time I drove upthe hill, I found myself holding my breath, waiting for the smallest sign of life, something new,something blooming. Every time I reached the top, all I saw were more bare branches. Lena climbed into the Volvo, a complaint already on her lips.

That place is awful. Id rather stay here and study Latin all day. How could I convince her to go somewhere I didnt even want to go? High school sucked. It was a universal truth, and whoever said these were supposed to be the bestyears of your life was probably drunk or delusional. I decided reverse psychology was my only shot. You have to come back. How about, its so bad, itll make the rest of your life seem great in comparison? Lena rested her shoulder against mine the whole way to school.

But when we got to the parking lot,she couldnt bring herself to get out of the car. I didnt dare turn off the engine. Savannah Snow, the queen of Jackson High, walked past us, hitching her tight T-shirt above herjeans. Emily Asher, her second in command, followed behind, texting as she slid between cars.

Emilysaw us and grabbed Savannah by the arm. They stopped, the response of any Gatlin girl whose Savannah clutchedher books to her chest, shaking her head at us sadly. It was like watching an old silent movie. Your uncles in a better place now, Lena. Hes up at the pearly gates, where a chorus a angelsis leadin him to his ever-lovin Maker. I translated for Lena, but she already knew what they were thinking. Stop it! Lena slid her battered spiral notebook in front of her face, trying to disappear.

Emily held up herhand, a timid half-wave. Giving us our space, letting us know she was not only well bred butsensitive. I didnt have to be a mind reader to know what she was thinking either. Im not comin over there, because Im a lettin you grieve in peace, sweet Lena Du-channes.

But I will always, and I do mean always, be here for you, like the Good Book and my mammataught me. Emily nodded to Savannah, and the two of them walked slowly and sadly away, as if they hadntstarted the Guardian Angels, Jacksons version of a neighborhood watch, a few months ago with thesole purpose of getting Lena kicked out of school.

In a way, this was worse. Emory ran to catch upwith them, but he saw us and slowed to a somber walk, rapping on the hood of my car as he walkedby. He hadnt said a word to me in months, but now he was showing his support.

They were all so fullof crap. His mammas gonna kick the tar outta him when he getshome. But it was going tobe happening all day, and I wanted her to be prepared before she set foot in the halls of Jackson.

I dontwant them to even look at me. I know Ridley was manipulating them with her powers, but if theyhadnt thrown that party on my birthday -- if I had stayed inside Ravenwood like Uncle Macon hadwanted He might still be alive. Sarafine would have found another way to get to you. She put her head in her hands, ignoring the tears that werelosing themselves in her crazy hair.

Im nothing like them. Everythings changed. He was sitting on the faded white line of the parking space next toours, as if he had been waiting for this moment.

Boo still followed Lena everywhere, like a goodCaster dog. I thought about how many times I had considered giving that dog a ride. Saving him sometime. I opened the door, but Boo didnt move. Be that way. As I did,he leaped up into my lap, across the gearshift, and into Lenas arms.

She buried her face in his fur, breathing deeply, as if the mangy dog created some kind of air thatwas different from the air outside. They were one quivering mass of black hair and black fur. For a minute, the whole universeseemed fragile, like it could fall apart if I so much as blew in the wrong direction or pulled the wrongthread.

I knew what I needed to do. I couldnt explain the feeling, but it came over me as powerfully as thedreams had, when I saw Lena for the first time. The dreams we had always shared, so real they leftmud in my sheets, or river water dripping onto my floor. This feeling was no different. I needed to know what thread to pull. I needed to be the one who knew the right direction. Shecouldnt see her way clear of where she was right now, so it had to be me. Thats what she was, and it was the one thing I couldnt let her be.

I turned on the car and shifted into reverse. We had only made it as far as the parking lot, and Iknew without a word that it was time to drive Lena home. Boo kept his eyes closed the whole way. We took an old blanket back to Greenbrier and curled up near Genevieves grave, on a tiny patch ofgrass next to the hearthstone and the crumbling rock wall. The blackened trees and meadowssurrounded us on every side, tufts of green only beginning to push through the hard dirt.

Even now itwas still our spot, the place where we had first talked after Lena shattered the window in Englishclass with a look -- and her Caster powers. Aunt Del couldnt stand to see the burnt cemetery andruined gardens anymore, but Lena didnt mind. This was the last place she had seen Macon, and thatmade it safe. Somehow, looking at the wreckage from the fire was familiar, even reassuring. It hadcome and taken everything in its path, and then it was gone.

You didnt have to wonder what else wascoming or when it would get here. The grass was wet and green, and I wrapped the blanket around us. It was always that way when we touched -- a gentle jolt of electricity that intensified with ourevery touch. A reminder Casters and Mortals couldnt be together. Not without the Mortal ending updead. I looked up at the twisted black branches and the bleak sky. I thought about the first day I followedLena to this garden, the way Id found her crying in the tall grass.

We had watched the gray cloudsdisappear from an otherwise blue sky, clouds she moved just by thinking about them. The blue sky --thats what I was to her. I couldntimagine what my life would be like without her. A perfect yellow lemon, the only one in the garden, surrounded by ash. Lena pulled it loose, andblack flakes flew into the air. The yellow peel gleamed in her hand, and she let herself fall back intomy arms. Not everything burned. Even these trees will grow again.

We were so close, her curls were falling into my face. Iblew, and they scattered. I was caught in her drag, struck by the current that bound us together and kept us apart.

I leaned into kiss her mouth, and she held the lemon in front of my nose, teasing. She sniffed it, making a face. The heat was on myskin, like fire.

Even though all I could feel was a biting cold whenever I held her hand lately, whenwe kissed -- really kissed -- there was nothing but heat. I loved her, atom by atom, one burning cell ata time. We kissed until my heart began skipping beats, and the edges of what I could see and feel andhear began to fade into darkness Lena pushed me away, for my own good, and we lay in the grass as I tried to catch my breath.

Are you okay? Im -- Im good. I wasnt, but I didnt say anything. I thought I smelled something burning and realized it was theblanket. It was smoldering from underneath, where it was touching the ground. Lena pushed herself up and pulled back the blanket.

The grass beneath us was charred andtrampled. Look at the grass. Since Lenasbirthday, things had only gotten worse, physically. I couldnt stop touching her, though sometimes Icouldnt stand the pain of that touch. She tossed the grass. Its getting worse. But we werent really looking at Greenbrier.

We were looking at the power ofthe other fire. Fire was the trademark of a Cataclyst, and Sarafines fire had burnt every inch of these fields thenight of Lenas birthday.

Now Lena was starting fires unintentionally. My stomach tightened. The birds do their thing, and the bees do theirs. Seeds get scattered, andeverything grows back. If youre lucky enough to be around me. A lifetime with Ammagoing dark had taught me that. Her shape cast a shadow much larger thanshe actually was. We sat like that, side by side, with only our shadows touching, until the sun went down and theystretched toward the black trees and disappeared into dusk. We listened to the cicadas in silence andtried not to think until the rain started falling again.

FallingIn the next few weeks, I successfully convinced Lena to leave the house with me a total of three times. Once to the movies with Link -- my best friend since second grade -- where even her signaturecombination of popcorn and Milk Duds didnt cheer her up.

Once to my house to eat Ammas molassescookies and watch a zombie marathon, my version of a dream date. It wasnt. And once for a walkalong the Santee, where we ended up turning around after ten minutes with sixty bug bites between us.

Wherever she was, she didnt want to be. Today was different. She had finally found somewhere she was comfortable, even if it was the lastplace I expected. I walked in her room to find her lying sprawled across the ceiling, arms flung across the plaster,her hair spread out like a black fan around her head. With every day, Lena the Caster girl was more unpredictable, stretching her powers tosee what she could do. As it turned out, what she could do these days was cause all kinds of trouble.

Like the time Link and I were driving to school in the Beater, and one of his songs came on theradio as if the station was playing it. Link was so shocked hed swerved a good two feet into Mrs. Ashers front hedge. But Link had believed her,which made his ego even more unbearable. I have that effect on the ladies. Thisvoice is as smooth as butter. I figured she had finally decided to come back to school.

But shewasnt actually there at all.

Beautiful Darkness (Book 2), Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia | | Booktopia

It was some kind of projection, or whatever the Caster word was formaking your boyfriend look like an idiot. Link thought I was trying to hug him, so he called me "LoverBoy" for days.

Is that such a crime? Dont be a baby. I said I was sorry, didnt I? Youre as big a menace as Link in fifth grade, the year he sucked all the juice out of my momstomatoes with a straw. It wont happen again. I swear. Thats what Link said back then. But he stopped, right? When we stopped growing tomatoes. A current crept through my arm, but I didnt let go, pulling her down onto thebed next to me.

I could see her shoulder shudder even though her back was to me. Ormaybe she wasnt laughing but crying, which was rare these days. The crying had mostly stopped and Nothing was deceptive.

Nothing was much harder to describe or fix or stop. Do you want to talk about it, L? About what? I pulled her closer, resting my head on hers. The shaking slowed, and I held her as tight as I could. Like she was still on the ceiling, and I was the one hanging on. I shouldnt have complained about the ceiling. There were crazier places you could hang out. Likewhere we were now.

I needed my handsto stay right where they were. If a cop drives by, were gonna get arrested or sent to BlueHorizons to visit my dad.

Its romantic. Couples come here all the time. Just the two of us, a wobbly iron ladder about a hundredfeet above the ground, and a bright blue Carolina sky.

I tried not to look down. Lena had talked me into climbing to the top. There was something about the excitement in hervoice that made me go along with it, as if something so stupid might be able to make her feel the wayshe did the last time we were here. Smiling, happy, in a red sweater. I remembered, because therewas a piece of red yarn hanging from her charm necklace.

She must have remembered, too. So here we were, stuck on a ladder, looking up so we didnt lookdown. Once we reached the top and I looked out at the view, I understood.

Lena was right. It was betterup here. Everything was so far away that it didnt even matter. I let my legs dangle over the edge. Only for my mom, it was water towers and postcards from theWorlds Fair. Like a big white spider.

Id go up once and never come back down. Its over in Gaffney. Guessthey thought of it first. We could paint this tank to look like one of Ammas pies. Shed like that.

But my mom had a picture of one shaped like a corncob. As small as thecardboard village my mom used to keep under our Christmas tree. How could people that small have any problems at all? Dont be such a chicken.

It wasnt anything special, but Id had it for a while now, and I washoping it might help her find her way back to herself. I pulled out a mini Sharpie, with a key ring on it. It fits on your necklace, like this. A tangle of charms, each one meant something to her -- the flattened penny from themachine at the Cineplex, where we had our first date.

A silver moon Macon had given her the night ofthe winter formal. The button from the vest she was wearing the night in the rain. They were Lenasmemories, and she carried them with her as if she might lose them without proof of those few perfectmoments of happiness. I snapped the Sharpie onto the chain. Before I knew it, she was drawing a heart. Black ink on white paint, a heart hidden at the top ofthe Summerville water tower.

I was happy for a second. Then I felt like I was falling all the way down. Because she wasntthinking about us. She was thinking about her next birthday, the Seventeenth Moon. She was alreadycounting down. In the center of the heart, she didnt write our names. She wrote a number. The CallI didnt ask her about what shed written on the water tower, but I didnt forget it. How could I, whenall we had done for the past year was count down to the inevitable? When I finally asked why shedwritten it or what she was counting down to, she wouldnt say.

And I had the feeling she really didntknow. Which was even worse than knowing. It had been two weeks since then, and as far as I could tell Lena still hadnt written anything in hernotebook.

It was weird not to see her writing, scribbling on her hands or her worn-outConverse, which she didnt wear much these days. She had started wearing her thrashed black bootsinstead. Her hair was different, too. Almost always tied back, as if she thought she could yank themagic right out of it. We were sitting on the top step of my porch, the same place we had been sitting when Lena firsttold me she was a Caster, a secret she had never shared with a Mortal before.

I was pretending toread Jekyll and Hyde. Lena was staring down at the blank pages of her spiral notebook, as if the thinblue lines held the answer to all her problems. When I wasnt watching Lena, I was staring down my street.

My dad was coming home today. Even though he wasnt back to his old self, I had to admit he was acting almost like aregular person again. But I was still nervous. Amma was standing on the porch in her toolapron, the kind she preferred over a traditional one, especially on days like this.

She was holding thegold charm around her neck, rubbing it between her fingers. I looked down the street, but the only thing I saw was Billy Watson riding his bike.

Lena leanedforward to get a better look. I dont see a car. I didnt either, but I knew I would in about five seconds. Amma was proud, particularly when itcame to her abilities as a Seer.

She wouldnt say they were here unless she knew they were coming. Itll be here. Sure enough, my aunts white Cadillac made the right onto Cotton Bend. Aunt Caroline had thewindow rolled down, what she liked to call air conditioning, and I could see her waving fromdown the block. I stood up as Amma elbowed her way past me. Your daddy deservesa proper homecomin. I took a deep breath. Lenas hazel eyes caught the sun. I lied. She must have known, but she didnt say a word.

I took her hand. It was cold, the wayshe always was now, and the current of electricity felt more like the sting of frostbite. Dont tell me youve been eatin anybodys pie but mine. Cause you look like youfell into the cookie jar and couldnt find your way back out. Ammahad raised him, and he knew her teasing held as much love as any hug. I stood there while Amma fussed over him as if he was ten years old.

She and my aunt were My dad smiled at meweakly. It was the same smile he gave me when we visited Blue Horizons. It said, Im not crazyanymore, just ashamed. He was wearing his old Duke T-shirt and jeans, and somehow he lookedyounger than I remembered. Except for the crinkling lines around his eyes, which deepened as hepulled me in for an awkward hug. I was sorry to hear about your uncle. He had to acknowledge Macons passing, even in amoment as awkward as this one.

Lena tried to smile, but she only managed to look as uncomfortable as I felt. Iwanted to throw my arms around her and let her squeeze the knot right out of my chest.

If we dont get in there soon, that chickenll have a mind to find its way home. She had the same brownhair and small frame as my mom, and for a second it felt like my parents were home again, walkingthrough the old screen door of Wates Landing. Come in. I wasnt offering to be polite. I didnt want to go in there alone. A few months ago, Lena wouldhave known that. But I guess today her mind was somewhere else, because she didnt. She was halfway to the car before I could argue. I watched Larkins Fastback disappear down my street.

Lena didnt drive the hearse anymore. Asfar as I knew, she hadnt even looked at it since Macon died. Uncle Barclay had parked it behind theold barn and thrown a tarp over it. Instead, she was driving Larkins car, all black and chrome. Linkhad foamed at the mouth the first time he saw it.

When I had asked her, shed shrugged and said, "He wont be needing it anymore. He had contributed to Macons death, somethingshe would never forgive. I watched the car turn the corner, wishing I could disappear along with it. By the time I made it to the kitchen, there was already chicory coffee brewing -- and trouble.

Ammawas on the phone, pacing in front of the sink, and every minute or two she would cover the receiverwith her hand and report the conversation on the other end to Aunt Caroline. Aunt Caroline pulled me over to the sink and whispered the way Southern ladies do whensomething is too awful to say out loud. Shes missin.

You wouldnt know anything about that, would you? We both knew I was the one who had been saying it for years. Amma glared at me and turned to Aunt Caroline. If she gets lightheaded, boil some dandelion. My hundred-year-old auntscat was gone, and it was my fault.

Id have to call Link and see if hed drive around town with me andlook for Lucille. Maybe Links demo tapes would scare her out of hiding. I wasnt really angry anymore. When I almostlost Lena, there was a part of me that understood why my dad had come completely unhinged. Icouldnt imagine my life without Lena, and my dad had loved my mom for more than eighteen years. I felt sorry for him now, but it still hurt.

My dad ran his hand through his hair and edged closer to me. One day, I was in therewriting, and the next day all I could do was think about your mom -- sit in her chair, smell her books,imagine her reading over my shoulder.

Maybe that was a trick they taught you at Blue Horizons. I couldnt let her go. My dad had lost the love of his life, and he had come unraveled likean old sweater. Id watched, but I hadnt done anything about it. Maybe he wasnt the only one toblame. I knew I was supposed to smile now, but I didnt feel like it. I wish youd said something.

I missed her, too. You know? He reachedaround and hugged me, squeezing my back with his fists for a second. Do you want to talk about it? Your mother taught me a thing or two about women over theyears. Shes not acting like herself. Lying on the ceiling. Refusing to go to school. Not opening up to me. Climbing water towers. He had no idea how right he was.

Relationships are complicated. You know you can ask me anything. What do you do when your heart almost stops beating every time you kiss? Arethere times when you should and shouldnt read each others minds? What are the early warning signsthat your girlfriend is being Claimed for all time by good or evil?

He squeezed my shoulder one last time. I was still trying to put together a sentence when he let go. He was staring down the hall, in the direction of the study. The framed portrait of Ethan Carter Wate was hanging in the hallway. I still wasnt used to seeingit, even though I was the one who had hung it there the day after Macons funeral.

It had been hiddenunder a sheet my whole life, which seemed wrong. Ethan Carter Wate had walked away from a warhe didnt believe in and died trying to protect the Caster girl he loved. So I had found a nail and hung the painting. It felt right. After that, I went into my dads study andpicked up the sheets of paper strewn all over the room.

I looked at the scribbles and circles one lasttime, the evidence of how deep love can run and how long loss can last. Then I cleaned up and threwthe pages away. That felt right, too. My dad walked over to the painting, studying it as if he was seeing it for the first time.

Ihope its okay. But it seemed like it belonged out here, instead of under some old sheet. Mygrandparents never said much about it, but they werent about to hang a deserter on the wall. After Iinherited this place, I found it covered up in the attic and brought it down to the study. Your mother wanted me to. She loved his story -- the way he walked away from thewar, even though it ended up costing him his life. I meant to hang it. I was just so used to seeing itcovered up.

Before I got around to it, your mom died. Im glad you hung it up. Its where he belongs. So after dinner, I drove around the Sistersneighborhood with Link looking for Lucille. Link called her name between bites of a chicken legwrapped in an oily paper towel. Every time he ran his hand over his spiky blond hair, the shine gotshinier from all the grease. Cats dig chicken. They eat birds in the wild. Biscuit," his bands terrible new song, on the steering wheel. Youd drive around while I hung out the window with a chicken leg in my hand?

And Coca-Cola cake. It was on a license plate stuck between a bumper sticker of the Stars and Bars, the Confederateflag, and one for Bubbas Truck and Trailer. The same old South Carolina plates with the state symbolI had seen a thousand times, only Id never thought about it before. A blue palmetto and a crescentmoon, maybe a Caster moon. The Casters really had been here a long time. Lucille Balls a girl. Boo Radley was sitting on thecurb, watching the Beater roll by.

His tail thumped, one lonely thump of recognition, as wedisappeared down the road. The loneliest dog in town. At the sight of Boo, Link cleared his throat. Lena spent most of her time atRavenwood under the watchful eyes of Gramma and Aunt Del, or hiding from their watchful eyes,depending on the day.

I mean, she seems kinda different. Even for Lena. That kind of thing changes you. Hed watched me try to make sense of my mothers death, and then a world without her in it. He knewit was impossible. Dont you think thats sorta weird? We have to find Lucille. His band, the Holy Rollers, shuddered through thespeakers. It washis way of dealing. I still hadnt figured out mine.

We never found Lucille, and I never got the conversation with Link, or my dad, out of my mind. Myhouse was quiet, which isnt what you want a house to be if youre trying to run away from yourthoughts. The window in my room was open, but the air was as hot and stagnant as everything elsetoday. Link was right. Lena was acting strange. But it had only been a few months.

Shed snap out of it,and things would be the way they were before. I dug through the piles of books and papers on my desk, looking for A Hitchhikers Guide to theGalaxy, my go-to book for taking my mind off things. Under a stack of old Sandman comics, I foundsomething else. It was a package, wrapped in Marians signature brown paper and tied with string. Marian was my mothers oldest friend and the Gatlin County Head Librarian. She was also aKeeper in the Caster world -- a Mortal who guarded Caster secrets and history, and, in Marians case,the Lunae Libri, a Caster Library filled with secrets of its own.

She had given me the package afterMacon died, but I had forgotten all about it. It was his journal, and she thought Lena would want tohave it. Marian was wrong. Lena didnt want to see it or touch it. She wouldnt even let it intoRavenwood. I turned it over in my hands. It was heavy, almost too heavy to be a book. I wondered what itlooked like. It was probably old, made of cracked leather. I untied the string and unwrapped it.

Iwasnt going to read it, just look at it. But when I pulled the paper away, I realized it wasnt a book. Itwas a black wooden box, intricately carved with strange Caster symbols.

I ran my hand over the top, wondering what he wrote about. I couldnt imagine him writing poetrylike Lena. It was probably full of horticultural notes. I opened the lid carefully. I wanted to seesomething Macon had touched every day, something that was important to him. The lining was blacksatin, and the pages inside were unbound and yellowed, written in Macons fading spidery script.

Itouched a page, with a single finger. The sky began to spin, and I felt myself pitching forward. Thefloor rushed up to meet me, but as I hit the ground, I fell through it and found myself in a cloud ofsmoke -- Fires burned along the river, the only traces of the plantations that had stood there just hours ago.

Greenbrier was already engulfed in flames. Ravenwood would be next. The Union soldiers must have been taking a break, drunk from their victory and the liquor they had pillaged from the wealthiest homes in Gatlin. Abraham didnt have much time. The soldiers were coming, and he was going to have to kill them.

It was the only way to save Ravenwood.

ELFREDA from Illinois
Feel free to read my other articles. I have a variety of hobbies, like pickup truck racing. I do love reading novels thankfully.