The high school building at night had an eerie, abandoned air to it, as if it was the cast-off shell of some monstrous creature. The empty windows stared down at us like many lidless eyes, and the shadows the street lights cast among the trees and bushes seemed to stalk our every move. The only oasis was the pool of white light in the lobby where the security guards were stationed. As the three of us approached the school gate, I found myself having to hold on to my courage with both hands, taking comfort in the presence of my brothers although I would never, ever admit to it.
The security guard spotted us almost immediately. Although the presence of high school students anywhere they weren’t supposed to be tended to arouse suspicion, the name Lozada turned out to be the magical incantation that opened all doors to us. Even the guards knew to give Markus and his friends more or less free reign over the high school; his family owned the school, the surrounding property, and practically the rest of the town, after all.
The guard said Markus had arrived about a quarter of an hour earlier, which proved my hunch was correct: The first place Markus would run to whenever he was troubled wasn’t his house, it was ours. The second place, though, was the school, which must have felt more like a home to him than that cold, sterile mansion he put down as his address. He’d seemed normal enough at the time, even swapping a joke or two with the guards. The only strange thing was the black hoodie he wore, considering the air was warming up quickly now that summer was right on our doorstep. That, and the fact that he made a beeline for the school clinic.
“So it’s over. Damn. And here I was hoping we’d have a go ourselves,” Dante remarked as we made our way to the clinic. His voice echoed through the darkened halls before the silence swallowed it up.
Daniel laughed a little too boisterously at that; clearly, I wasn’t the only one feeling spooked by the alien environment our school had turned into. “Yeah, but from the sound of it, Markus did okay all by himself, considering he was outnumbered.”
“‘Course he did. Our boy’s a tough one. And he’s smart. He knows when to fight dirty, and when to run. Remember how much you hated sparring with him?”
“Hey, you were the one who hated sparring with him. You kept trying to get out of it by pretending to be me, even though it never worked.”
Thankfully, the conversation ceased when we got to the clinic. It was obvious Markus had been here. The lights were on, the door was partially open, and one of the chairs had been left in an awkward position in the middle of the floor. The faint smell of antiseptic still hung in the air, and the discarded paper wrappings of gauze pads and used cotton wads lay inside the trashcan. The blood and grime on the cotton wads gave me another bad turn, and I glanced around the clinic as if I could somehow conjure him out of thin air through sheer panic alone.
“Well, he’s definitely not here anymore, so where is he?” Daniel muttered beside me.
“Hey, what’s this?”
Dante picked up a plastic supermarket shopping bag that had been left on the floor. Inside was a cheap, plastic flashlight broken nearly in half, a pack of batteries, an empty bottle of water, and a dented six-cup pack of caramel pudding. “Was he planning on having a snack…in the dark?” Daniel asked in confusion, and Dante shrugged in response.
“We—we have to look for him,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “He’s got to be somewhere here in school.” Taking the plastic bag from Dante, I ran out of the clinic, but the sight of the darkened hallways, with their creeping shadows and spooky noises, gave me pause. “Can somebody please turn on the lights?” I muttered.
“You scared of the dark, Ate?” Dante snickered as he and Daniel moved past me, their phones held out in front of them, the bright beams of light from the screens illuminating the way. “We’re going to check our homeroom. What about you?”
“I guess I’ll go check the principal’s office,” I said, then made a face at their backs. Sure, go ahead and make fun when I’m the one who’s all alone and you two are practically holding hands. Digging out my own phone, I used its light to scan the wall as I walked, practically pouncing on the light switch when I found it and sighing with unabashed relief as fluorescent light flooded my vision. I found myself standing at a T-intersection, with the corridor ahead of me leading to the administrative offices, and the corridor on my right leading to the auditorium.
But I wasn’t alone.
A familiar figure sat in the middle of the intersection, her tail wrapped demurely around her paws, the yellow heart on her white breast making her identity unmistakable. Her green eyes were wide and innocent-looking, and when she meowed, she sounded almost teasing.
“Looking for someone?” she seemed to say.
I stared at the small calico cat for an endless moment. “H-hello,” I finally croaked.
Mustard meowed again in reply and stood up, her tail sticking straight up and vibrating with excitement. Then she turned and darted down the corridor leading toward the auditorium.
And again, I followed her. The light in the corridor ended where the covered footpath began, and the dark, hulking shape of the auditorium dared me to leave my sanctuary and step into its domain. But Mustard ran on, swerving off the covered footpath and disappearing into a copse of trees. Hesitantly, I stepped onto the grass, took a couple of steps forward, then stopped. Then not far from where I stood debating the wisdom of following a ghost-cat into the darkness, just above the spot where Mustard had vanished, a small circle of light appeared.
An instant later, my phone began to chime as a call came in. I gave a little shriek, frightened out of my wits, and at the same time, a familiar voice cursed from the direction of the glowing circle.
“Sienna?” Markus called. He pushed himself up to a sitting position on the concrete table where he’d been lying, peering at me in shock and bewilderment. “What’re you doing—?”
He broke off and steeled himself as I bore down on him, all thoughts of ghost-cats forgotten for the moment. But instead of giving him the wallop he so richly deserved for scaring us, I ground to a halt and bent over to catch my breath. “Ate Sienna—?” he began uncertainly.
“You idiot!” I roared as I straightened, and he flinched at the ferocity in my face. “What the hell were you thinking? Was this some kind of macho stunt or were you just being stubborn? Why didn’t you call us, call for help? Okay, fine, maybe you were too busy tussling with a bunch of lowlifes, but that was well over a freaking hour ago! Do you have any idea how worried we were, you inconsiderate, reckless—”
“Sorry.” His quiet apology cut me off in mid-rant. He turned aside and hunched over, his elbows braced on his knees, his hood concealing most of his face. “I didn’t mean to make you guys worry. It’s just…” He sucked in a breath and moved his head in a helpless little gesture. “I know I should’ve called you sooner—I was about to when you showed up. I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to stand you up, but after the—after it was over, I didn’t want to…”
The dejection in his form and his stumbling attempt at an explanation doused the flames of my anger. I walked around to his front, then deliberately stepped into the space between the bench and the table right between his knees, using my proximity to keep him from escaping. I nudged at him to make him sit up straight, noting his hiss of pain when my hands pressed against his shoulders. “Let me see,” I ordered, then pushed his hood back before he could protest.
Using my phone as a flashlight, I inspected the bandage on the left side of his cheek. He’d done a good job patching himself up, considering the hit he took. “Just a glancing blow. I managed to block most of it,” he muttered when I told him this. I moved my hands over him as gently as I could, taking an inventory of his injuries, which turned out to be mercifully short—a bruised shoulder, a sore back, some tender ribs, and banged up elbows, forearms and shins. I took his right hand and examined his knuckles, which were red and swollen and covered in tiny cuts and abrasions, but nothing more serious than that. I sent up a prayer of thanks that Dante was correct in his assessment of Markus’ abilities.
As I studied him, he gave me a recounting of the fight. He was coming out of the supermarket when four guys confronted him, one of whom was Jenalyn’s boyfriend—or rather, her ex-boyfriend, since she’d apparently broken up with him to be with Markus, only to have Markus dump her in turn. He tried in vain to talk them out of it, but before they could come at him all at once, he struck first, using the only available weapon he had—the bag full of items he’d purchased at the supermarket.
“I was lucky. Incredibly lucky,” he mused. “Street fights are crazy unpredictable, and when it’s four against one… Don’t worry, though. Those guys won’t be bothering me again any time soon. But they would’ve wrecked me for sure if the supermarket guard and one of the car owners hadn’t come to break us up. I ran for it then, and…I came here.”
He swallowed and stared down at his right hand, and I became aware that I was still clasping it in mine. I blushed and released it, and it curled into a fist in his lap, looking oddly forlorn.
“Truth is, I didn’t want you to see me like this. And after I promised I’d do everything right,” he confessed hoarsely. “This is all my fault. I messed up. And even though I know you hate it when we get into fights, I still—God, what am I even saying?” He reared back and raked both hands through his hair, then grimaced in pain. “Look, I know you’re worried about me the same way you’d worry about your brothers. I know that’s the only reason you came after me, and that you don’t have any other feelings for me. I know that, I just—I can’t deal with it right now, okay? And now you’re standing here looking like that, and I’ve disappointed you again—ow! Sienna, what—?”
He yelped in pain and surprise when I threw my arms around his neck, sending my tote bag and the plastic bag flying in an arc around him. Gentling my hold in deference to his injuries, I leaned my head against his shoulder and nuzzled my nose against his neck to breathe in his scent—Markus mixed with sweat, cologne and antiseptic—until my fear and worry faded away, replaced by an electric feeling of wonder and discovery, and an incredible sense of rightness.
Has it always felt this good to hold him?
He was rigid at first, too stunned to return my embrace. But just as I was about to remove myself from his personal space, his arms whipped tightly around me, one hand coming up to tangle in my hair and hold my head in place. Even his legs locked around me, enclosing me in a warm, safe cocoon. He shuddered a little, and I felt something wound up tight inside him loosen and melt away. Another memory flared to life: Me pulling him into a comforting embrace until the stiffness left his thin body and he sagged against me, shaking with the effort to keep from crying but soaking the front of my shirt anyway, while a pink and purple flower drifted down from the butterfly tree above us and landed in his hair…
“Sienna?” he mumbled.
“I have to ask. You weren’t thinking of bashing someone’s skull in with that pipe that’s probably given me another bruise on my back, were you?”
“Oh, sorry.” I shifted my hold around the bags, making the lead pipe clank against the table. “Just a little insurance in case those bozos followed you here.”
“God, you’re terrifying. Ow,” he replied, his body shaking with laughter.
“Oh, I know that. Markus?”
I pulled back and looked him in the eye. “Trying to do the right thing is not messing up. And I’m not disappointed in you. How could I be, when you’ve just achieved a new level of coolness right now?” The amazement, relief and naked hope dawning in his eyes made me smile, and I reached up to lay my hand against his cheek. “Don’t ever be ashamed of doing what’s right, okay? No matter what happens, even if someone makes things hard for you, you just keep on doing what you believe is right. You got that?”
There was a moment of silence as he absorbed my words. Then his gaze lowered as he took my hand and moved it until I could feel him smiling against my palm. “Sooo, what exactly are you trying to tell me?” he said, giving me a half-lidded look through his lashes, his manner once again flirtatious and teasing.
“I’m trying to tell you—” I drew in a breath, my smile turning into a grin, “—that I want to go ghost-hunting already. That’s what you had planned for us tonight, right?” I went on when he blinked in surprise. “The things you bought from the supermarket are a giveaway, although I’m not so sure what the caramel pudding cups are for. Were you planning on having a snack in the dark?” I wondered, testing out Daniel’s hypothesis.
He chuckled—and winced—again. “Ow, that hurts. And a snack? The pudding cups aren’t for me, they’re for you. You always buy a lot but you hardly ever get to eat them because your brothers get to them first.” He took the plastic bag from me and produced the six-cup pack of caramel pudding, but at the sight of the misshapen cups, he sighed and stuffed them back in the bag. “These are all messed up. I’ll just get you another pack, okay?”
I snatched the bag back. “What’re you talking about? These cups are fine. They’re perfect.” I cradled the bag to my chest, feeling the dented shapes of the precious pudding cups through the plastic as the sweet, shimmery warmth spread through me. “Thank you, Markus,” I said, smiling up at him again with all the happiness I felt.
His lightheartedness faded as his expression turned intense. He brushed the backs of his fingers against my cheek then ran the pad of his thumb over my lower lip, leaning closer at the same time. My heart stopped, then exploded into frenetic life. Will it be now? I wondered—I hoped. Will I find out what a kiss feels like now?
Then he stopped and closed his eyes, his jaw tightening until I could hear his teeth grinding together, before unwinding himself from around me and gingerly getting to his feet. “Come on, Ate Sienna,” he said cheerfully, “let’s go find you some ghosts.”