These are the first three chapters of the first book in the Harrington House series. Enjoy.
Scary monsters. Super freaks.
Deep breaths. Take deep breaths. Stop the shaking, inside and out. Push down the darkness, get through
practice, and this suckhole of a day will be over.
I closed my eyes, open locker shielding me from the rest of the team. Three minutes. All I needed was three minutes.
I leaned my forehead against the locker next to mine. Cold metal to hot skin. Good start.
One breath for Father gifting me the fist-sized bruise below my right shoulder blade.
One for the slap Amy Gosche laid on me when I pinched her butt.
One for the D+ on my math test. (Father will be pissed.)
One for being a genetic freak who could heal everything but my own mind.
One for Lindsey Buckner announcing I kissed like a wet fish. To the entire cafeteria.
One for Mama. (If I lost control, we’d both pay.)
BAM! My locker door smashed closed, then shivered back open from the force. I jerked away from the
ringing metal, spitting out a long string of curses.
“Corey!” It was Trevor Pereira. Freshman quarterback. Coach’s bright, shining hope for the future. My primary hope for escape from my own personal hell. “Get your ass in gear, we’re late!”
I slapped the locker shut, ramming the lock home, then grabbed my helmet off the bench. Every muscle rang with tension as I said, “Outta the way, Pereira.” My helmet may have collided with his stomach as I pushed passed him. These things happen.
“Hey!” Trevor said, bumping his helmet against my back. I whirled around and took a step toward him. The rational part of me knew this was suicide. We were both freshmen, but Trevor was half a head taller, as muscular, and five kinds of calmer than me. I needed him on my side, but the jangling, broken part of me begged for a fight. I couldn’t keep it inside much longer. All the signs of a blackout were here. Shaky hands. Jittery heart beating high and wild. Thoughts fogging to incomprehension.
Trevor tilted his head to one side. Small wrinkles of concentration appeared around his too-bright eyes and asked, “What the hell’s wrong with you, Corey?”
He was handing me an in. Holding the door wide open for me to stumble away from Father. From the darkness inside me.
I almost said them.
Four little words.
Problem was, the keening roar in my head made it impossible to think. I had to say the right words, in the right way, at exactly the right time, or he’d shut me out for good.
So I bailed. “Not your issue, Trevor,” I said, clamping my jaw shut to steady my voice. I twisted away, hiding whatever pathetic neediness was bleeding into my face, and stalked off.
“Yeah, it is,” he said, keeping pace behind me. “I look bad when you act idiotic. I’m supposed to keep the freshmen in line. Including you.”
“Good luck with that.” Three minutes. If I could just breathe for three minutes, I had an outside chance of staying in control.
His jaw muscle jumped as we pushed through the doors, me ripping down a sign for the Halloween Haunt dance, him adjusting his jersey. “I’m going to be starting QB by junior year, maybe sooner,” he said. Trevor Pereira wasn’t bragging. He was the up and coming rock star of the Loyton Pythons. “You’re good, Corey; I want you on my team. But if you can’t keep it together, I can do it without you.”
“I was trying to rein it in. You interrupted me.” I veered away from Trevor, helmet swinging between me and him, my head turtled into my shoulder pads.
Deep breaths. My hands were shaking, caustic bile forcing its way up my throat as I searched for a way to calm down.
But football players aren’t soothing. Someone slammed into my shoulder, and the darkness swept in, finally severing the thin leash I had on my anger.
Blackouts were the worst.
Correction; coming out of my blackouts sucked the most. Being in them wasn’t bad. It wasn’t anything. A slice of unknowing silence. Time passed in a blink. No biggie.
Coming out was never quiet. Like a shade whipping open, I dropped into whatever impossible situation I’d created.
A wiry arm clamped around my neck, my chin hovering above the V of his elbow. Bonus points for him; he’d managed to lock the chokehold over my uniform. If he tightened even an inch, I’d pass out. If I tucked my chin in, he’d break my jaw. Whoever held me knew what he was doing.
My fingernails were scrabbling against his skin, fighting to wrench myself free. Stupid. I knew I couldn’t pull the arm away, but acting smart wasn’t high on my Things-I-Did-During- Blackouts list. Or any time, really. My right hand stung like a mother, a sure sign I’d hit someone. Good news, nothing was broken. No need for me to risk using my healing mojo in front of the team. Potential smackdown avoided.
I heard incoherent screaming coming from the ground. Probably directed at me. Probably the guy I’d hit.
So, I did what I always did in these situations. I laughed. “Jeez, guy, can’t take a love tap?” The hold shifted a tiny bit as I struggled to remember what had happened. The locker room, walking, a shove…then nothing. But this blackout had been short. We hadn’t even gotten to the field. I’d only lost a few minutes. But man, those minutes must’ve been action-packed. Lucky Coach banned cell phones during practice or my special brand of crazy would already be flooding the internet.
My teammates were helping Pete Renken off the grass. His left eye was already swelling closed and blood leaked from his nose. Pete swiped at his face with the back of his hand and glared at me from the shelter of his pack of football friends. “Holy hand grenades, Corey, what gives? We were just playing around!”
My heart sank to my stomach. This was bad. I needed Pete not to hate me. To be on my side, or at least neutral. He and his foster brother Trevor were the first guys to talk to me during tryouts a couple months ago. That kind of thing counted when you’d been the new guy 12 times by age 15.
I scanned the horde of angry players, looking for Trevor’s face. I couldn’t find it. Not a surprise.
I tapped out on the arm, wrestler-style. “Relax, man. I’m good. Lemme go.”
Trevor’s voice floated over my head. “No way, Corey. You punched my brother for no reason.”
Great. I’d pissed off the two guys who didn’t think I was a total nutcase. Bigger deal…they, and the place they lived, were the key to my plan.
The thing about my darkness, it doesn’t know when to quit. Trevor’s comment made it bubble up inside me, nauseating, wanting to wrench his arm down. Turn and go after him.
I had to keep it under control.
I forced the nausea down and said, “I’ve learned my lesson. Now stop hugging me, willya? It’s embarrassing. People will start to talk.”
Trevor let me go, but not before shoving me off-balance and forcing me forward a couple steps. Smart move. He was out of range if I tried to take a swing at him. I turned on him but stayed out of range. My forehead was level with Trevor’s nose. He was intimidatingly tall and mad as hell. I tossed him what I hoped was a cocky grin as I eyed his shoulder pad.
Jerk move, but par for my course. Pissing people off was my thing. Pinching butts in the hallway. Slamming my shoulder into smaller kids. Fighting. A lot. But it made a good shield to keep people away. Better everyone stayed away than were hurt by what was inside me. I was the one who needed to fear that.
Trevor’s gaze, however, dragged mine upward and forced me into a staring contest I could never win. His eyes—cream-and-coffee orbs set into caramel-colored skin—had this piercing quality shooting right through you. There were moments when I’d caught him looking at me…it felt like he could see into my blackest secrets. And with the things I was hiding, that was a terrifying thing.
Trevor was doing the soul-scalding super-look on me now, trying to pull out the reason I’d gone after Pete. I couldn’t blame him. Everybody liked Pete. Even me. I swept my curly bangs out of my eyes and didn’t look away; I couldn’t have even if I wanted to. First, because I don’t back down—not from anyone—and second, because I was hoping I could still fix it between me and him.
Trevor took a step forward, towering over me. In a calm voice, totally opposite of the tempest in his eyes, he said, “If you broke his nose, I swear to God I’ll break yours.”
From the blood leaking down Pete’s face, I’d say there was a 60-40 chance his nose was cracked. All I had to do was touch him, and I could heal the damage I’d done. But no way I’d parade that in front of this crowd. Any crowd. Others aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by Normal people.
Trevor and I were standing apart from the rest of the team clustered around Pete. Didn’t matter. We were the center of their attention. I could blow him off and make some snarky comment like always, but it wouldn’t work. Trevor and Pete would never help me if they thought I was hiding something. I had to tell him the truth.
I stepped in and said, right into Trevor’s ear, “I can’t remember what happened. I didn’t try to hurt him.”
Trevor’s eyes widened in surprise. He hadn’t been expecting that. More important, I think he believed me. Maybe his laser gaze could parse the truth from the crap. I sure as hell hoped so.
“OUTTA the way!” Coach Tweedledum and his assistant pushed through the pack and came at me. He was short, round, and bald. Trade in the whistle and sweats for a beanie and some suspenders, and he’d be a dead ringer for one of the creepy twins from Alice in Wonderland. Except I don’t remember Tweedledum popping a blood vessel the way Coach did.
“Coach Brophy.” I turned and met him head on. “You missed all the fireworks.”
Coach saw Pete bleeding and the other players watching Trevor and me. He put two and two together. Sharp cookie, Coach. “Did you do this?”
“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t properly supervised. Where were you? You should’ve been watching over me better.” Stupid again. Coach had a short fuse and didn’t allow much crap from players. Especially freshmen.
Coach’s face turned the color of a cooked beet. “You’ve been here, what, three weeks, and this is your second fight?” He stepped toward me, breathing like an overheated bull. “Do you want to be on this team, Tajos?”
“Yessir.” I ducked my head. I knew better than to talk back. Playing football was the only thing I was good at. The only thing that got Father off my back.
Taking my silence for surrender, Coach Brophy snorted in triumph. “Renken, Tajos, you’re with me! The rest of you go with Coach Thompson and start the warm up!”
The team broke apart and headed toward the practice field. Coach Brophy led the way back to the school, Pete and I behind him. Pete had stopped bleeding, but he was sure to have a full-on rainbow shiner by tomorrow. His nose was swollen. Probably broken. I couldn’t tell, not by sight, anyway. I had to figure out a way to touch Pete in the next two minutes, hopefully on the head. There was only one way I could think of, and it would jeopardize my standing with him and Trevor even more. Not to mention I might expose myself as an Other and get the crap beaten out of me by the entire team. Or kidnapped. Sold to entrepreneurial bottom-feeders who preyed on freaks like me.
Desperate times, and all. I walked up behind Pete, let out an “Oof” and shoved him as hard as I could. He fell, his yell of surprise transforming into a grunt when he hit the turf. I landed on top of him, pinning him to the ground and accidentally on purpose smacking one hand against the side of his face.
I closed my eyes and concentrated, sending the mojo—my healing ability—into Pete’s cheek and nose. My hand tingled as I explored his face with my mind, concentrating on his nose. A bruised throbbing echoed in my own features, but no sharp, bright pain of a broken nose. Thank the holy hand grenades, as Pete said. I didn’t have to use my ability, and Trevor wouldn’t try to break my face.
I scrambled off, saying, “Sorry, man, my bad, tripped on the grass…” Babbling, basically.
Pete flipped onto his back faster than a cat. By rights he should be pissed. Hella mad. Instead, he goggled at me in sheer confusion. He touched his cheek where my own hand had been moments before, then his nose, like he wasn’t sure if they were his own.
I froze. Had Pete felt the tingling when I touched him? Had he figured out I was an Other? Impossible. No one knew what I could do. Except Mama and my little brother.
Coach was screaming bloody murder, yelling “If you weren’t such a helluva good linebacker, I’d boot you from the squad and ban you from the game for the rest of your high school career!”
I let him squawk and focused on Pete, telling him how sorry I was, worried he wasn’t more pissed off. I stuck my hand out to help Pete up.
“No thanks, brah,” he muttered, shrinking from my arm like it was a tazer. He scrambled to his feet and headed toward the gym. Coach, out of breath and hoarse, stopped bellowing and stomped off next to him.
I trudged behind them, cursing the day under my breath. Besides having to glue together the shards of my world after the blackout, besides wrecking my chances of Pete not hating me forever, I’d almost exposed myself as an Other. If Pete made the mental leap and pegged me as a superpowered freak, I could be screwed. It’s not like there was a law against having abilities. But if people knew? That’s when it hit the fan. At Loyton High, I’d go from barely-there freshman misfit to active, high profile target. Students. Teachers. Janitors. Everyone would know what I was, and I could end up on the radar of some very bad people.
I freakin’ hated my blackouts.
Coach marched me to Principal Wiggins after leaving Pete in the locker room to clean up. From my seat next to the principal’s office, I heard them arguing about yours truly. There was a lot of muffled muttering.
Never a good sign. My knee bounced up and down as the minutes piled up.
After 45 minutes, Principal Wiggins finally opened the door and beckoned me into his sanctum. I took a deep breath and slouched into the seat next to Coach Brophy. Wiggins leaned both elbows on his desk, laced his fingers together and said, “You’re in a great deal of trouble, lad.”
I bit back a laugh. Lad? Who said ‘lad’ in the twenty-first century?
“Your punishment is one week of in-school detention, Corey, starting tomorrow,” Wiggins continued.
My shoulders sagged inside my pads. I could live with that. Detention was held during lunch, and I hadn’t made a whole lot of friends in the first weeks of school anyway. I was the new guy with attitude and a nasty sense of humor. There was always a chair or two between me and the next kid on the outskirts of the football team’s tables in the cafeteria. Their safety zone.
I laced my fingers behind my head, relieved enough to get cocky with Wiggins. “Then can I change? This uniform doesn’t do a thing for my figure.”
“Tajos!” barked Coach, and I cringed. “Apologize!”
“Sorry, Mr. Wiggins.” My arms fell to my side.
Wiggins scowled. “I don’t think you appreciate the gravity of your situation, lad. Had it not been for Coach’s defense, you would have received a week’s suspension.”
“Yes, Mr. Wiggins. Thank you, Coach.” I was laying it on pretty thick, but I needed to get back onto Coach’s good side or he’d drop-kick me to JV for sure.
Wiggins frowned. “We have also informed your parents of the incident and your detention.”
I bolted upright. “Parents? Which one?”
Wiggins said, “Both. We had to pull your father out of a meeting, but we felt it was important to speak with him directly. This is your second offense, after all.”
“Are you nuts?” The words slipped out before I could stop them.
The principal sat back with a smug look. “No, but this is a serious matter. We have a no-tolerance policy about fighting in school, as you know, Corey.” He jabbered on about respecting my teammates and the no bullying thing, but I couldn’t hear him anymore. I was screwed. They’d called Father at work and pulled him out of a meeting. I was so dead. He’d blame Mama for raising me wrong. She’d pay too.
Wiggins droned on for ten extra minutes before he released me from his office. I scrambled to change and make it onto the late bus. My brain was whirling, planning how to keep Father from exploding, knowing there was no way.
This was my family: the monster, the ghost, the mouse, and me. Dysfunctional didn’t even begin to cover our extreme brand of messed up.
The monster started molding me into a Real Man when I was eight. A Real Man took it on the chest. Or the back. Or the stomach. Never on the arms or legs, where a concerned adult might see the welts inflicted to toughen me up. His daddy had hand-picked him out of his pack of brothers and beaten him bloody to make him strongest. I was in for the same learnin’. “Look how well it worked,” he’d tell me, swigging his scotch and thumping his chest like an alpha male gorilla. The one good thing he’d done for me? He taught me to throw a football. Catch it. Play the game. Anyway, he’d gotten out of town, made a name for himself, then went back to the putrid backwater where he grew up to find a mate.
Mama wasn’t always so faded. She was properly happy in her wedding pictures, a pretty wisp of a girl next to strong-jawed Father. These days she sparked to life with me and the mouse, dimmed into shadow in Father’s presence. She loved the mouse and me, fierce and pure, but no one could protect me from the monster.
My little brother Josh was a sick baby. Something wrong with his stomach. The doctors said he’d grow out of it but, long before he did, Father dismissed him as too weak for his training program and left him alone. Josh kept to the shadows and corners of our world and avoided the concentrated lessons I got.
I was screwed up. Father struck something off the rails inside me, and I couldn’t push it back on track. When blackouts made me fight, Father beat me, figuring it’d fix the problem. He was so wrong.
I dreamed of running away, but never could. Why? Because of my secret weapon. Nobody believed Father hurt me, not without the scars my ability took away. But if I ran while I was bloody, I’d heal so fast I’d be outed as an Other, and that would unleash a whole new hell from Father. I was stuck. I couldn’t get clear of Father without exposing what I was to the world, so I couldn’t expose Father as the monster he was.
I was the soldier who put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Too bad I was also Humpty Dumpty.