Page 14

 A.G. Howard

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I splash my face with cold water.
Get better, get out of the hospital, and find out the truth. Then I can decide what to do about everything.
Once I’m back in my bed, Nurse Terri returns to offer a handful of herbal cough drops. I pop one in my mouth without hesitation, just to see her smile. The vanilla and cherry sweetness soothes my throat.
She draws some blood for tests. I hold my breath, worried that my essence will come alive like when I’m making my mosaics. Once three plastic vials are filled and capped without incident, I breathe easy again, and Nurse Terri promises to return with broth and crackers.
While I’m waiting for Jeb to get back, the wind picks up outside and whines through the glass panes—a sound I’m used to here in Texas, yet which leaves me uneasy tonight. I stare at the IV in my hand, watching a thin red strip of blood back up into the clear plastic tube. It flutters like a kite string. I’m about to push the nurse’s button so I can ask when the needle’s coming out, when Jeb steps inside.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey.” He closes the door.
Once he’s seated, he laces a hand with mine and props his elbow next to my pillow. His free fingers play with my hair where it spreads across the mattress. A spark of pleasure races through my achy body. I’m enjoying being the recipient of his undivided attention so much, I hesitate asking my next question, but I need to know.
“What happened with your interview?”
“We rescheduled,” he answers.
“But the two-page spread, that was a big deal.”
Jeb shrugs, though his forced nonchalance is transparent.
I bite my lip, searching for a subject change. Something positive. “You and Dad. You’re on his good side again.”
Jeb winces. “Yeah, but now your mom hates me more than ever.”
I study the window behind him. “You know how overprotective she is.”
“It’s not helping, you lying for me. I heard what you said …”
I frown. “What did you hear?”
“That you covered for me. Told her I didn’t ‘choose to be there.’ You and I both know I did choose to be at the storm drain. I took you there without even considering all the rain or what could happen.”
I squeeze his hand, partly out of frustration and partly out of relief. “That’s not why she’s mad.”
“Why, then?”
I glance at the stuffed animals on my window ledge: a bear, a rather large clown with a boxy-checked hat that covers the top of his head, and a goat eating a tin can with Get Well on the label. The clown looks familiar in a sinister sort of way, but I decide it must be the lighting. Shadows drape across all the toys, making them appear to have missing eyes or limbs. It reminds me so much of Wonderland’s cemetery that my stomach flips.
“Al.” Jeb nudges me. “Are you going to tell me why you guys were yelling when I came in?”
“She just wants me to concentrate on my career, to not get sidetracked. She feels like she lost her shot at being a photographer after being committed. It’s not you specifically. It’s about anything she perceives as a distraction.” I fidget under my covers. A lie shouldn’t be so easy to spin.
Jeb nods. “I’m not a distraction. I’m helping. I want you to succeed just as much as she does.”
“I know. She just doesn’t see it that way.”
“After my meeting with Ivy Raven tonight, I should have all the money we’ll need to get started in London. That will prove how much I want to help.”
My fingers jerk in his. So that’s why he shaved and dressed up. To make a good impression on his new heiress client. My mom’s warning of betrayal surfaces in my mind, but I push it down. I know I can trust Jeb. Still, I can’t seem to control what comes out of my mouth next.
“You’re going to leave me for work on the first night I’m awake?” I cringe at the neediness in my voice.
Jeb wraps my hair around his fingers. “Your mom made it clear I should be gone before she gets back. Ivy’s in town, so I’m going to meet her and let her choose a painting. She’s not in the country very often. We have to take advantage while she’s here.”
“But it’s a holiday. Isn’t the gallery closed? Is Mr. Piero meeting you there?”
“He’s home with his family. He’s letting me use the showroom as a favor.”
My lips tighten. I don’t like him going alone, though I can’t put my finger on why. Maybe it’s my netherling side, because the emotion feels animalistic … feral. A dark and disorienting instinct that’s pecking away all of the trust we’ve forged over the past year.
Jeb’s mine. Mine mine mine.
A snarl tugs at my lips, but I suppress it. What’s wrong with me?
The stuffed clown flops to the floor with a metallic twang, and Jeb and I both jump.
“Huh,” Jeb says as he picks the toy up and rearranges it on the windowsill. He tugs at the oddly shaped hat. “There’s something metal under there. Must be top-heavy.”
“Who’s that from?” I ask.
“The guy who helped on Friday after I pulled you out. I was trying to get you to breathe, and he appeared out of nowhere … said he saw an ambulance going down the street and waved it down for us. My cell phone was lost in the flood. He got the help I couldn’t give you.”
There’s something about the clown. Apart from it looking distantly familiar … apart from it being bigger than the other toys. It almost appears alive. I keep waiting for it to move.
As it stares back at me, the shadows seem to change its expression—from a smile to an evil sneer. Even the cello in its hand can’t soften the image.
A cello.
My wariness kicks up another notch. That’s the one instrument that I know how to play. The one instrument I haven’t touched since last summer. How would a stranger know that about me?
Jeb said the guy appeared out of nowhere …
Trepidation knots in my throat. “What’s this person’s name?” I ask.
“I didn’t get it,” Jeb answers. “The card on the clown said, ‘Hope you’re feeling up to your old self soon.’ No signature. But we checked with everyone else and no one we know sent it. So it must’ve been him.”
The toy’s beady black eyes zero in on me like eager cockroaches.