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Earth & Sky excerpt

Chapter 1

I'd like to think the courthouse won't be a problem. It's older than my house, older than our school. The mottled gray facade matches the overcast sky, dark stains creeping along the edges of the stone blocks and the grooves in the decorative columns. But I'm already tensing up, bracing against the uncertainty of a place I've never been before.

The rest of Ms. Vincent's law class gathers on the sidewalk outside the courthouse, a few final stragglers joining the crowd. Any second now, Ms. Vincent will turn up and we'll go in. I concentrate on the building. Eighteen windows: six across each of the three stories. Four fluted columns in front of the doorway. Five oak saplings spaced at equal distances on the short lawn beside the front steps. Smears of red and yellow dappling the once green leaves.

The tightness between my shoulders relaxes.

Jaeda's standing at the edge of the lawn in a hooded sweatshirt the same red as the leaves, bright against her brown-black skin. She looks like a catalog ad for "Fall's Hot Fashions." She's grinning at a joke Daniel just told--Daniel with his vintage bowler hat tipped low over his crinkled eyes. Three guys from the football team are mimicking moves from yesterday's game beyond him. One of the twins is tickling his girlfriend's neck with a twig. Next to me, Angela's pulling out her camera to snap a photo for the school paper. Nothing remotely abnormal.

A damp October breeze sweeps over us, and Angela shivers. "Why can't Vincent ever be on time?"

I glance at my watch. "She should be here soon." Ms. Vincent averages about seven minutes late, but twenty-three is her record. It's been fourteen since class technically started today.

"Someone should report her," Angela grumbles, tucking her chin behind the collar of her suede jacket. We both know she doesn't mean it. There's an unspoken agreement between everyone here, which I suspect exists in all of Ms. Vincent's classes: we'll cover for her when we need to. Because unlike most of the teachers who show up on time, when she is in class she makes us feel like we're learning things we'd actually want to know.

I'd assume my best friend's just grouchy because of the weather, but when she swipes her dark bangs to the side, a crease has formed between her eyebrows. I've known Angela since we were eight years old, and that crease means she's got some worry worming around inside her head. I glance away, deciding how to raise the subject, and that's when I notice the guy.

He's sitting off to the side of a bench on the other side of the street, mostly hidden behind a parked truck, but the instant my eyes slide over him, a sense of conviction jolts through me: he shouldn't be there. My pulse skitters and my mouth goes dry, my skin feverishly cold. A ringing echoes between my ears, insisting that the guy is wrong, wrong, wrong.

My coping mechanisms are so ingrained that even as part of me responds with oh God, not again, my hand is digging into the pocket of my jeans, finding the glass beads on my hemp bracelet. My fingers swivel each bead around the woven strings three times, in tandem with my silent mantra: Three times three is nine. Three times nine is twenty-seven. Three times twenty-seven is eighty-one. Three times eighty-one...

There's a perfect dependability to math. No matter how many times you perform the same operation, the answer's always the same. As the factors expand out in their unshakeable pattern, my heartbeat steadies, the chill ebbs, and the wrong feeling fades away. Which it should, because the guy looks like a regular, nonthreatening human being.

He's gazing down at a book propped open on his lap, his black hair sloping jaggedly across his forehead, gray corduroy blazer open over a lettered T-shirt I can't read because of the truck. The corner of his mouth is quirked up as if he's read something funny. From his clothes and what I can see of his face, I'd guess he's in college. Maybe waiting for a friend who lives nearby before heading to campus.

I turn before he catches me staring, studying the courthouse again as the last ripples of wrongness subside. Eighteen windows: six across each of the three stories. Four fluted columns.

One more mental disaster averted.

It's been a long time since a moment like that overwhelmed me, but the memories are as vivid as yesterday. The tremor of sobs in my throat, the frantic babbling. No matter how practiced I get, I know a total breakdown is just a slipup away.

The worst part--worse than the panic and the unpredictability of the feelings--is that no matter how intense or certain they get, or how much I want to react, there's never anything actually wrong. The feelings are unavoidable and unrelenting, and absolutely meaningless.

"Skylar," Angela says. "Earth to Sky!"

I blink and look back at her, smiling automatically. "Sorry. Thinking about the chemistry test."

The lie comes automatically too, but with a prick of guilt. It fits the image my friends have of me--You know Skylar, always so focused, no wonder her brain needs to recharge sometimes!--but I didn't become Skylar-the-cool-and-collected until middle school. One of the reasons Angela and I are friends is that she never blinked when every now and then in elementary school I'd randomly decide we needed to play somewhere else in the yard or go to a different store, or I really didn't like that one song. Even the times I couldn't get away fast enough and the panic took over, she accepted my weak excuses and just seemed happy when I was okay again. She treated it like an odd but inoffensive allergic reaction I gradually grew out of. Except I haven't actually grown out of it. I've just gotten better at pretending.

"Like you'll have any trouble with the test," Angela says, rolling her eyes. "We have to go over the formulas again at lunch, okay? They always make sense when you're explaining them, and then an hour later, it's all a blank." She swipes her hand across her forehead dramatically, then perks up. "There she is!"

Ms. Vincent has just come around the corner, walking as quickly as the narrow heels of her ankle boots allow. She stops at the edge of our crowd, smoothing her windblown hair back into its usual auburn bob--the color I wish mine were instead of brown with a hint of orange.

"Yet another victory of public transportation over punctuality," she says, beaming at us. "Well, here we are. Let's head inside and see some law in action."

She leads us through the double doors like the captain of an invading brigade. A security officer does a quick check of our bags, and then we march up the stairs. My gaze snags on an empty corner on the first landing. Wrong. My hand is already in my pocket as the chill tingles over me, but the feeling's not as strong as it was with the guy outside. I only have to spin three beads on the bracelet before it's faded.

Twice in ten minutes. Sometimes I can go a whole day without one. What a great trip this is shaping up to be. I drag in a breath and zero in on Daniel's back ahead of me. On the shifting of his shoulders and the spot where his pale neck meets his sweater.

The sweater is forest green. I think it's his favorite. He wore it at least once every week last fall and winter. He wore it the second time we went out, the time when I said good-bye and bolted for my front door right when he was about to kiss me, because the stupid streetlight felt wrong and my mind scattered.

He was wearing it on the day, the week afterward, when I went up to him in the cafeteria and he talked to me like I was just some girl from class, and I knew there wasn't going to be another date.

It's a nice sweater, but I kind of hate it.

Jaeda's talking with the football guys now, which gives me a flicker of reassurance even though she and Daniel have been friends since sophomore year and never anything more. Even though I already had my chance.

Angela mock coughs and I jerk my gaze away, my cheeks warming. She smirks at me, knowing who I was looking at. But when I scrunch up my nose at her, she ducks her head, and that worry line creases the olive-brown skin of her forehead again. I'd almost forgotten.

Her mom's been pressuring her about her grades even more now that we're seniors, threatening to take away Angela's camera if she doesn't get straight As. And Teyo, the guy she's been working up the courage to ask on a study date, just started seeing a freshman girl last week. Or it could be something she hasn't mentioned yet. Sometimes Angela likes to talk things out and sometimes she'd rather shrug them off.

"If I'm not allowed to worry about the chem test, you're not either," I say, keeping my tone light.

"Oh," she says, "it's not that. I swear I'm going to have an aneurysm over this Halloween dance. Two more people who were supposed to make decorations bailed on yesterday's meeting. So basically it's up to me and... me. Everyone'll know who to blame if it's a mess!"

I smile for real. This is a problem I can solve.

"I'll help," I said. "And I bet Bree will too."

"Really? I know you're not that into crafty stuff. And you two are busy with cross-country right now."

"It's not like that's all day. You just tell me what to do, and I'll do it. I know whatever you've got planned is going to look amazing."

"It really is!" she says. "You'll love it. I decided to go with an old-school theme, very gothic, but kind of golden-age-Hollywood glamorous too. You won't believe the awesome candelabras I got at Vintage Fleas, and Lisa found this velvet fabric for the tables, and..."

We spill out into a wide hallway on the third floor, beneath a ceiling edged with wooden beams. As we approach the doors at the other end, Ms. Vincent claps her hands together for our attention. Angela and I scoot closer, stopping by one of the arched windows that look down over the parking lot.

"In a couple minutes, we'll be invited inside to watch a few cases presented to the judge," Ms. Vincent says. "Remember, these aren't full trials with a jury and several witnesses and cross-examinations. With this type of case, it's mostly up to the judge--"

I never get to hear the rest of that sentence. Her voice is cut off by a hollow clunk that seems to come from right inside my ears.

And then the hallway explodes in a blaze of heat and light.

It smacks into me, my vision going white and my skin sizzling and my head aching as if someone's socked me with a brick. A siren call of WRONG, WRONG, WRONG blares over all that, drowning out every other sound.

I can't breathe. My legs wobble. I gulp for air and a squeak slips from my throat.

That noise brings me back. My fingers--they're clutching the window frame. Cool, polished wood. Two tiny nicks in the surface under my thumb. The tiled floor is firm beneath my feet, flat except for the crack at the edge of my right heel. I'm here, in the courthouse. It's not on fire. It hasn't blown apart.

The blaring wrongness recedes, just a little.

A hand touches my elbow. "Sky?" Angela says.

The hall is coming back into focus, but my thoughts keep spinning. Everyone around me is shifting and murmuring, in confusion or amusement. Like they don't care what just happened. How can they be so calm? We all just about blew up--

No. No we didn't. Sweat has broken over my skin, but I'm not even the slightest bit singed. There's no taste of ash or sulfur in my mouth, only the acidic flavor of panic. A flavor I know too well. I blink, and the world settles back into place. It was all in my head, like always. The blast, the light, the heat--none of it was real.

But the sense of wrongness is still quivering through my body. I shove my hand into my pocket. The bracelet's beads are smooth against my fingertips. Three times three is nine. Three times nine is twenty-seven. Sixteen cars in the parking lot below. Five silver, four black, three red, three tan, one white.

"Are you all right, Skylar?" Ms. Vincent asks.

The feeling retreats further, but it doesn't leave. Why won't it let me go? I keep twisting the beads as I look up. Ms. Vincent is studying me, her brow furrowed. Almost everyone is staring. Daniel is staring. Embarrassment washes over me. I've been so good at staying in control and now...

I've never felt anything like that before--so vivid, so intense. What was that? I'm up to 3 times 59,049 is 177,147 and the wrongness is still clinging on, humming through my mind.

But I didn't totally lose it. I can salvage this.

I draw myself up straighter and clear my throat.

"I'm okay," I say, and manage a laugh that's only a little hoarse. "I-- There was a spider. A really big one. I might be slightly arachnophobic. Sorry, Ms. Vincent."

To my relief, several people giggle. They bought it. A couple of the girls near me take a step to the side, eyeing the wall nervously. Everyone else turns away. I want to think Daniel's gaze lingers a millisecond longer, a fraction more concerned than the others, but at the same time I want him to forget this ever happened.

Ms. Vincent hesitates, and then goes back to her introductory speech. Wrong, wrong, wrong, whispers the voice in the back of my head. Angela slings her arm around me, her shoulder bumping mine.

"Be real," she murmurs. "You need to sit down, or get some fresh air? Vincent will let us."

I look into her wide eyes, the coffee-brown gaze I've known more than half my life. I could tell her. I've thought about it. She hasn't been fazed by anything I've thrown at her so far.
But my real is not her real. Those eyes didn't catch even a glimpse of what nearly knocked me off my feet. There is no way I can make that real to her. I wish it weren't real to me. I'd give anything to live in her world, the world everyone else lives in, where everything stays solid and definite and right when it should.

"Thanks," I say. "I'm okay."

The class moves toward the door, which has just opened. Angela gives me another searching look, then drops her arm. As we follow the crowd, I glance down the hall one last time. My steps falter.

He's there. The guy in the gray corduroy blazer, leaning against the wall by the stairwell we came up through. He's still got his book in his hand, examining the cover, but a tickle creeps up my spine, telling me that a second before I looked, he was watching us. When did he come up here?

"Everyone in?" Ms. Vincent calls. I pull my gaze away and walk through the doorway, leaving the guy behind.

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