MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
They never stood a chance.
Tires screamed as the van sped around the corner. It hopped the curb, and the vehicle jolted, the back door swinging open, spilling a sack of priceless artifacts—paintings, sculptures, anything and everything the thieves could snatch from the Morriston History Museum. Not that it mattered. They would be apprehended quickly. They always were.
A golden platter slid from the back of the van, spinning like a top in the middle of Fifth Avenue’s busy intersection before falling still. Rotor blades flapped as a helicopter hovered overhead, a cameraman dangling out the door, filming the scene for the world to see.
But the real show was just beginning.
It started with a shadow—long and narrow, stretching over the river where the wharf met the city. The shape grew, widening as it torpedoed to the ground. Blink and you’d miss it. A red blur shot through the air into the back of the van, stopping it from traveling down the ramp to the riverbank, where a boat waited at the docks. Brakes screeched. The van spun in a tight circle, coming to a crunching halt against a guardrail. Dozens more relics fell through the doors, landing in a heap at the side of the road. The camera feed from the helicopter shook as the man inside struggled to get closer.
Smoke curled into the air.
The passenger door opened slowly.
The hero who emerged wore a bright red suit, paired with a mask that covered the cheeky grin likely unfolding across his face. As he forced the thieves—a young man and woman—toward the onslaught of police officers, the crowd on the sidewalks erupted, cheering his name.
“Red Comet! Red Comet! Red Comet!”
I wanted to barf.
“Abby, wasn’t that the coolest thing ever?” My best friend, Sarah, put away her cell phone, silencing the video clip of Red Comet’s latest rescue as we took our seats in the school auditorium for a Friday-afternoon assembly.
“Anyway,” she continued, “do you want to go out somewhere tonight? I just bought a new Taser.” She unzipped her purse to show me. “You can’t go wrong with glitter and pink.”
“Well, at least it’s better than the can of pepper spray you accidentally shot in your eye last month.”
“Hey now. My screams of agony kept that guy from stealing my car out of the mall parking lot. I call that a win.”
I wished I could laugh, but in reality the crime rate in Morriston had grown to such a height that we would be stupid to step outside without some form of protection. Gangs and muggers ran rampant, and then there was that one guy who robbed the mini-mart on Bay Street every Thursday evening like clockwork. After a while, people started making light of the situation just to spare themselves the pain. The pickpocket stole my homework was a common joke among students. The police and the supers were stretched thin, and my father, Morriston’s longest-tenured mayor, was running himself into the ground to contain it.
Taser or not, I couldn’t give Sarah a definitive answer. I was too busy dreading the upcoming assembly. According to Principal Davis, Morriston High had managed to wrangle a famous surprise guest. Surprises had a tendency to make my stomach sour and my palms sweat.
What a shame that Morriston was full of surprises.
It started and ended with the supers. All things did. The nationwide obsession with the heroes had existed far longer than the seventeen years I’d been alive, and would no doubt live on for decades after. Some called them celebrities, others called them gods, but it couldn’t be denied that their inhuman abilities had led them to become somewhat of a saving grace throughout the country. Literally. They worked in conjunction with the police forces, but everyone knew the supers stopped crime faster, more efficiently, and … they did it while wearing tights.
Only two were currently active in Morriston. The ever-charismatic Red Comet held the top spot in the superhero hierarchy, followed by Fish Boy—an aquatic hero with shiny blue flippers and a gas-guzzling motorbike. Fish Boy showed up late to every crime scene that took place on land, appearing only marginally sooner to those taking place on water. Understandably, he didn’t garner much press coverage.
No one could explain how their powers came to be. There were theories, of course. Overexposure to radioactivity, genetic manipulation, popping out of the womb with the ability to use more brainpower than the average human, but none were ever proven true. How did Chicago’s favorite hero, the Force, control the weather to strike down criminals with lightning bolts? How did Seattle’s Chameleon shape-shift into any animal she desired? Why could Red Comet fly faster than the speed of sound while I was stuck sitting on the bus for thirty minutes on my way to school?
The answer: The supers were exceptional. The rest of us had to work our butts off all day, every day, to get the slightest bit ahead.
“Attention! Attention, students!” Principal Davis tapped the microphone onstage with two pudgy fingers. A loud squeal echoed through the auditorium, ceasing conversations, raucous laughter from a group of sophomores sitting behind Sarah and me, and at least five make-out sessions.
“Who’s this assembly for again?” Sarah whispered in my ear.
“Not sure.” But I had an inkling.
“I know you’re probably curious why we pulled you out of last period,” Principal Davis continued. “The faculty has a very special treat for you today. It was hard to track him down, but we succeeded in the end. He’s here to say hello and speak a bit about public safety in our fine city of Morriston.…”
Oh God, I thought, wiping my palms on my jeans. Please no.
“Put your hands together and give a warm Morriston High School welcome to…”
No. No way. He’s not the only one in the city. It doesn’t mean that it’s—
I was fairly certain I was the only student who slumped in their seat and groaned instead of immediately jumping up and screaming. The junior and senior boys had decided to stomp and chant, “Com-et! Com-et! Com-et!” and nothing the teachers did could make them stop. Red Comet was the superhero every teenage guy wanted to be and every teenage girl (and a few boys) wanted to be with.
He was also my nineteen-year-old brother, Connor.
If Connor Hamilton was a hurricane, then I was a drizzle. He was popular and athletic, while I didn’t care much for either. Where I was book-smart, Connor was street-smart—he never cracked under pressure and always knew what to do. While I clumsily stumbled my way through high school—just ask my PE teacher—Connor flew gracefully above the streets of Morriston, spending his days and nights saving the world.
“Oh my God, Abby! OH MY GOD!” Sarah began smacking my shoulder. “It’s him! It’s really him! Oh my God, I—I can’t! I just can’t!”
“Can’t what?” I muttered. Connor wet the bed until he was eight, and no amount of muscles or spandex could make me forget the nights he barged into my room, his pajama pants still soaked with urine.
Sarah was too busy losing her mind to notice the scowl on my lips. She was Red Comet’s biggest fan. She owned T-shirts and posters and wrote hideously sexual Red Comet fan fiction that I refused to read because thinking about my brother in that sense didn’t do much for my appetite.
If Sarah ever discovered that the so-called “sexy superhero” in the red-and-gold suit was the same blond-haired dork who belched nacho cheese in her face at the summer festival, I knew she would immediately burn her Red Comet shrine and repent. But instead she, like so many other rabid fans, was busy snapping away photos of the famous Red Comet to sell or Instagram or masturbate to—whatever people did with his picture nowadays.
Despite the head-to-toe super suit covering every inch of skin, including his eyes and mouth, I could immediately tell when Connor caught my eye and smirked at my agony. He probably also threw a wink in my direction, just for good measure.
Go ahead, Connor. Soak it up, why don’t you?
“Quiet! Everybody, quiet!” Principal Davis returned to the microphone, placing a hand on Connor’s shoulder, unaware he was fondling the same kid who only two years prior spray-painted his Jaguar hot pink for a senior prank.
The students continued cheering until Connor calmly raised a hand in silence. One by one they resumed their seats, some kids in awe, some shaking, and others, like Sarah, with tears streaming down their cheeks.
“I can’t believe he’s here,” Sarah whispered, sniffling into her sweatshirt. “I can’t believe it.”
“I am honored to be here today,” Connor began, his voice deepening as part of his disguise. “A hero’s job is never easy, and I would like to thank each of you for your support. Protecting a city is not a one-man job, and on behalf of all the superpowered men and women in Morriston and beyond, we are grateful for your vigilance and your devotion to keeping our streets and neighborhoods safe. A few things we can do to improve…”
I ignored the rest of Connor’s speech, which was probably written by our father, the great politician, and ran through song lyrics to the school’s fall musical, Hall of Horrors, in my head.
Don’t eat the flesh—
“Thank you, have a safe evening.” Connor graciously bowed away from the microphone as Principal Davis shook his gloved hand.
“Abby, let’s go meet him! I need his autograph! Do you think he’d let me interview him for the school paper? Or for my blog? Oh God, I’m so nervous! His voice is so sexy, I could listen to him talk all day!”
“I don’t think he’s doing a meet and greet. Come on, I really need to rehearse for my audition next week.” Hall of Horrors had completely consumed my thoughts for the past month. The show was a rock comedy about a cannibalistic royal family and their servant, who falls passionately in love with the crown prince, and as a senior, I wanted a good part. Theater was my passion; it was my thing. Sure, Connor could surpass the speed of sound, but I could do a kick-ass pas de bourrée.
“What? No! You’ll have tons of time to rehearse.” Sarah latched onto my wrist and pulled me through the crowd forming at the edge of the stage to get Red Comet’s autograph. “Does my hair look okay?” She desperately fluffed up her auburn curls while I contemplated five different means of escape, one of which involved projectile vomiting all over Connor’s red suit.
“Hi, Red Comet!” Sarah squealed over the head of a short freshman girl. The girl moved away, tears clouding her eyes, and Sarah pulled us to the front of the line.
“Ladies, how are we?” Connor reached for Sarah’s phone, scrawling RC on the case with a permanent marker. Sarah looked like she was about to pass out, and judging by the amount of hypothetical if-I-ever-met-Red-Comet conversations I’d endured over the past three years, I knew she was either going to hit the deck or jump his bones.
“Want me to sign anything?” Connor turned toward me. Even though gold lenses covered his eyes, I could imagine his cocked eyebrow and lips smirking at me through his mask.
“No thanks, I’m good.”
“Is it, um, is it hard to f-fly?” Sarah stuttered.
Connor shrugged, patting her shoulder. “Easier than breathing, sweetheart.”
Lie. Connor put at least ten holes in our walls while learning to control the powers he discovered after his sixteenth birthday. Flying wasn’t easy.
“Red Comet, could I—do you think maybe I could get a—a hug? Maybe?”
“Of course, come on up.” He gestured for the teachers to let us onstage. A few students yelled in protest, but Connor didn’t care. He led us toward the curtain and pulled Sarah into a hug that lasted far longer than he intended. Too bad Connor didn’t possess super strength, because it took him three tries to politely extricate himself from Sarah’s death grip around his neck.
“Ohmigosh, ohmigosh, ohmigosh!” Sarah was crying again, the ends of her shirtsleeves covered in tears and snot.
“I think I just ruined her life,” Connor muttered in my ear as he pulled me to his chest, his voice no longer as husky as when he made his speech. “I was only trying to be nice.”
“You definitely made her life, not ruined it. She’ll be incorporating this moment into her fan fiction for years to come.”
“Awesome,” he chuckled, but his voice betrayed him. Connor was as terrified of Sarah’s Red Comet fan fiction as I was. “Hey, what’s for dinner tonight?”
“Depends. What are you making?”
“Nothing. I think Dad mentioned steaks as long as his press conference doesn’t run over.”
“You’re actually going to be home for dinner?”
“Of course, as long as I don’t…” Connor trailed off, tilting his head toward the ceiling. I knew that look—his superhuman sixth sense for trouble was tingling. “Shit. See you later, Abby.” His hands fell from my shoulders, and he took off, hovering above the stage to many oohs and aahs from the student body before he flew to save the day—leaving the door dangling off its hinges in his wake.
“Dad? Connor? Anyone home?” I called out when I entered my house later that afternoon. My voice bounced off the vaulted ceilings and didn’t receive a response. Our house was far too large for three people who barely set foot in it, but it was secluded at the end of a quarter-mile-long private drive in the woods, which was exactly what we needed.
My parents purchased the five acres of land and the mansion that came with it three years ago, after Connor discovered his powers and needed a place to practice. I couldn’t forget that day even if I tried. We had just returned home from Connor’s sixteenth-birthday dinner. At first, he thought he was only coming down with the flu. His head ached from loud noises, and he felt like he would throw up every time he smelled food. Connor went to bed early that night without opening any of his presents, and when he awoke the next morning, his vision had heightened to the point where he no longer needed glasses and he flipped out because he was hovering four feet in the air above his mattress. My family moved to our new house the following morning.
But now Mom was long gone, which was the reason Connor decided to suit up and save the world and hardly eat a meal in our house, and my dad had been reelected mayor and was working around the clock to make Morriston the safest city in America. The large mansion with its tall windows and expensive electronics was only regularly home to me, but because of the secrets my family kept, I couldn’t invite any friends over to enjoy it.
“Abby? You okay?” Connor found me in the kitchen an hour later, staring helplessly at some science homework. I was surprised he was home this early after his abrupt departure at school, but even more surprised that his super suit was dirty and ripped and he looked like he was about to cry.
“I’m fine. Are you okay? What happened to you?”
Connor shrugged, throwing his mask on the kitchen table. I was used to Connor wearing his Red Comet getup around the house, but sometimes it still startled me. For as much as I teased him about his nerdy powers or screaming fans, I often forgot that my charismatic, pretentious brother was capable of feeling normal human emotions like exhaustion or sadness.
“Bank robbery downtown,” he finally said. “Hostage situation.”
I gulped. Of all the terrible things that happened in Morriston, I always was filled with dread at the mention of a bank robbery. Too many bad memories.
“Is everyone all right? I mean, did anyone—”
“No, it’s fine.” Connor’s blue eyes hardened, and he reached to pull me into our second hug of the day. The tang of sweat and smoke clung to his suit, but I didn’t protest when he ran a hand over my hair. “You know I’d never let that happen again.”
I knew he wouldn’t dare lie about that. Connor lied about a lot of things—his secret identity, his grades in his online college courses, whether or not he spent the night fighting crime or in some girl’s bed. But he would never lie about saving hostages. Not when our mother was shot and killed in a similar robbery three years ago. Her death was the catalyst for Connor’s transformation into Red Comet. Mom had always been too afraid for Connor’s safety to let him become a hero, but Connor had pleaded with our dad, suggesting that using his powers to save others and prevent another death like our mother’s would be a good use of his time.
Dad never disagreed.
Finally, Connor pulled away and reached for his mask, stuffing it into a pocket in his suit. His eyes were red-rimmed and I knew mine looked the same. Connor and I were two years apart, but we looked more like twins with identical dirty blond hair and bright blue eyes. I knew we looked even more alike when we were crying over our mom. We had done quite a bit of it over the past three years.
I only blamed one person for Mom’s death: the man who pulled the trigger. But I would be lying if I said I never wondered why Connor hadn’t done something to help her. He wasn’t Red Comet at the time, but he still had powers. He could have been right there. Yet every time I got close to asking why, Connor would go off on a tangent on some homework problem he needed my help to solve or a new burger joint he wanted to visit with me, and I chickened out, preferring my relationship with my brother over reopening old wounds. Maybe the truth was best left hidden, just like Red Comet’s identity.
“Cheer up, kid.” Connor flashed me a toothy grin, and just like that, his sadness disappeared from view. If Connor wasn’t a superhero, his acting skills, straight white teeth, and sharp jawline could make him a viable candidate for a movie star. “You still need to help me with my calc homework.”
Connor may have been a crime-fighting superhero, but I was the straight-A student in the family.
My dad arrived home just as Connor hopped out of the shower. The sound of their conversation drifted from the front hall to the kitchen, words like assault rifles and disaster reaching my ears. I could picture my father, all salt-and-pepper hair and glasses, running a hand over his jaw before jotting down notes from Connor’s afternoon escapade on the cell phone that never left his person. Once he even dropped it in the toilet because he refused to put it down.
“I’ll take care of it,” I heard Dad say. “We’ll wipe all the crime from this city yet, you mark my words.”
The stairs creaked as Connor disappeared upstairs to his room.
“Abby, I have something for you.” Dad kicked his shoes off on the mat by the back door and pulled a beer from the fridge. A hostage situation so similar to the one that killed his wife undeniably shook him, but he didn’t show it. Benjamin Hamilton wouldn’t be Morriston’s favorite mayor if he did.
“What is it?” I asked, a little skeptical.
My phone buzzed on the table, and Dad grinned, gesturing at the screen. “I sent you a new self-defense video. This one is about escaping choke holds.”
“Oh. That’s … great.” This was self-defense video number ten in the past three days alone, otherwise known as my dad’s attempt to teach me how to defend myself without superpowers. I’d insisted years ago that I was too athletically challenged to attend karate lessons, and so this was the agreed-upon alternative. Gouging eyes, throwing elbows, escaping zip ties—you name it, Dad found a video tutorial and sent it to me. I understood his reasoning for wanting to protect me from dangerous Morriston criminals; I probably understood better than anyone. And so I watched the videos to appease him, nothing more. Fighting crime was Connor’s hobby, not mine.
Dad took a long swig of his drink, then sat across from me. “So how was school?”
I was about to answer when Connor returned to the kitchen. He had changed out of his costume and was now wearing faded jeans and an old Morriston High PE shirt, making him look less like a supernerd and more like the average college student.
Smirking, he dropped a packet of calculus homework on the table in front of me. He’d only completed one problem, and it took me two seconds to realize the answer was wrong.
“I got an eighty-one percent on my history paper,” he announced proudly. Rolling my eyes, I fixed the math problem he’d butchered with a stroke of my pen, then threw the packet at his chest. Connor had received his 81 percent solely because of the three closing paragraphs I wrote for him after he’d lost interest in typing and decided to rush downtown to help the victims of a car accident on the Morriston Bridge instead. But I didn’t tell Dad that.
“I got a hundred on mine,” I said instead, pulling the paper on British literature out of my bag and sliding it underneath my dad’s elbow.
He glanced up, smiling. “Really?”
“Really, really. The English department is going to feature it on the school’s website and everything.”
“That’s great!” He actually put his phone down. I beamed. Winning his attention with my brother in the room was never an easy feat.
“And Principal Davis told me that—”
“Oh, Connor, before I forget, I’m thinking of setting up another press conference for you,” said Dad. He shifted forward, and my paper slipped off the table and fluttered to the floor. When I picked it up, it was covered in last night’s pizza crumbs. Awesome. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I loved him to death, but everything with Connor felt like a competition, a giant game that I never agreed to play.
I’d grown used to it. Connor was Connor, and I was just happy he hadn’t gotten hurt in his life of fighting crime. After Mom died and Connor became a hero, I worried constantly, but I’d eased up in the years since. Connor was a superhero powerhouse, and I needed to worry less about how many criminals he was punching and more about how often I was rehearsing my lines and lip trills if I wanted to be successful too.
But … I still waited up for him to come home more nights than I cared to admit.
Connor reached for my English paper and brushed away a few of the lingering crumbs. He presented it to our dad with a flourish and wrapped an arm around my shoulders.
“I got you,” he whispered to me. Then he grabbed a bag of chips from the pantry and floated—yes, floated (it’s like flying but with a bit more hover)—through the air, landing in the chair next to our dad.
Connor grinned cheekily and shoved a handful of salt-and-vinegar chips past his lips.
Once a supernerd, always a supernerd.
* * *
The following week brought record amounts of rain to Morriston, slightly less crime for Connor to fight, and an abundance of nerves as I prepared to nail my musical auditions.
“Abby! Abby, Abby, Abby! Wait up!” Sarah sprinted down the hall to catch me as I entered the auditorium, bumping into anxious freshmen, the night janitor with a bucket of someone’s regurgitated lunch, and a group of stage-crew kids having a makeshift sword fight with a pile of two-by-fours.
“Where’s the fire?” I reviewed song lyrics in my head while scoping out a prime auditorium seat in the first row, which would provide the most opportunities to brownnose Mrs. Miller, our director.
Foes and rivals, knock ’em to the ground …
“There’s no fire, I just…” Sarah placed her hands on her knees and leaned against the corner of the sound booth, catching her breath.
Feast and bury, never to be found …
“I wanted to tell you that…”
When we’re through, they’re merely skin and bone …
We don’t care ’cause we’re sitting on the …
“That I’m auditioning for the musical.”
The last lyric flew out of my head faster than Red Comet high on caffeine. I didn’t think Sarah could sing. Actually, I was sure she couldn’t. She once composed a song about Red Comet and sang it to me and Connor, and we thought our ears were going to bleed. It was so horrible that Connor wanted to make it his theme song just for shits and giggles.
I looked at Sarah. Her big brown eyes lit up with excitement as she bounced on the toes of her sneakers. “You’re auditioning for the musical?”
“I’m auditioning for the musical.”
Uh-oh. “You can sing?”
“Well … no. But I really wanted to do this with you because I know all I talk about is Red Comet this and Red Comet that, and I know you don’t really like that, and so I thought we could do something that you’re interested in—Hall of Whores.”
I snickered at her mispronunciation of the show title, but felt a surge of affection for my best friend for wanting to do something with me other than talk about my brother and his bright red tights.
“It’s Hall of HORRORS, not ‘whores.’” I fought to maintain a straight face, but all I really wanted to do was smile. “Are you sure about this?”
“Absolutely. Trust me, Abby,” Sarah said. “This is going to be so … so…”
I never found out exactly what it would be because Sarah emphatically spread out her arms at the exact moment that the door to the sound booth opened behind us, punching the poor boy who emerged square in the nose, knocking him to the floor.
“Oh no!” Sarah clapped her hands over her mouth. She gave him a muffled “Sorry!” as her face blushed.
“S’okay,” he mumbled. He began gathering the stack of papers he had dropped, so meticulously that I wondered if he was only doing it to stall until he was forced to look up at us.
Sarah and I crouched beside him to help. “I think your nose is bleeding,” I said, noticing a few red specks on the paper nearest him.
The boy’s shoulders slumped. “Happens to the best of us.” He rubbed his nose on his sleeve.
“Do you need a tissue? Or the nurse’s office?”
“They have really big Band-Aids in there,” Sarah chimed in. “Like almost as big as your head.”
“As appealing as that sounds, no thanks.” When we stood, the boy finally unglued his eyes from his shoes. He was a good several inches taller than me, which wasn’t exactly difficult to accomplish. Dark brown hair fell into darker brown eyes and curled around his ears, which stuck out just a tad too much. The boy rolled a chapped lower lip between his teeth while trying to clean the blood from his face.
“The Band-Aids in the nurse’s office really aren’t that big.” I laughed, trying to lighten the mood. “You have a very average-looking head, so they should fit you fine.”
The frown on his face melted into something slightly softer. “Is … that a compliment?”
“Well, it was really just an observation. Your head doesn’t look like a cantaloupe, so I thought ‘average’ might be the correct description. But if I was wrong…”
“No. Um … no. That’s … funny,” he murmured the last word. But he didn’t look like it was funny. He looked anxious and repeatedly scuffed the toe of a sneaker along the floor, his fingers twitching against his thigh.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t winning the award for World’s Most Talkative Human anytime soon—Connor was already a frequent nominee in that category—but I’d never met a guy so painfully shy. A cute guy at that. If Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome would crack a smile now and again, then he might actually appear approachable. I knew I recognized him from last year’s musical, and I had a vague memory of taking a class with him during our freshman year—or was it our sophomore?—but I couldn’t remember his name for the life of me.
“Sorry about all of … this.” I gestured to his nose, then prodded Sarah when she didn’t speak.
“Right. Yep. Sorry.” Her cheeks were still pink with blush.
The boy’s brown eyes flicked up again before returning to the floor. In that brief moment, an emotion other than anxiety washed over his face. His eyes widened and his shoulders relaxed. He looked shocked that we had bothered to apologize. “Don’t worry about it.” His voice was the equivalent of speaking near a sleeping baby—so quiet he barely said anything at all.
“I know I’m about to sound like a total jerk,” I said, “but what’s your name?”
The boy blinked at me, saying nothing.
“I mean, we’ve gone to school together for a while, but I don’t think we’ve been introduced.” I looked at Sarah. “Have we been introduced?”
“Don’t think so,” she replied.
“Right. So…” I offered him my hand. “I’m Abby. This is Sarah.”
Another blink. No words escaped his lips. My hand dangled in the air.
I cleared my throat. “And you are…?”
“Oh.” He seemed to steel himself, and then he was gripping my hand with calloused fingers and a clammy palm, squeezing perhaps a bit too tightly as he said, “I’m Rylan.”
“Ryan?” He was so quiet.
“No. Rylan. There’s an l in the middle.” He drew a large L in the air with his finger. “Rylan Sloan.”
I grinned. “Well, Rylan, it’s nice to meet you.” He finally let go of my hand. I tried really hard not to make it obvious when I wiped his sweat residue off on my shirt.
“Likewise, Abby.” I caught a hint of a smile cross his lips, but a second later it was gone.
“Oooh! Oooh, Abby, it’s starting!” Sarah pointed out two empty seats near the front of the auditorium as Mrs. Miller took the stage.
“We’re really sorry about your nose,” I called back to Rylan. He nodded, never speaking, then returned to the sound booth.
Sarah and I sat in silence while Mrs. Miller passed out sheet music to all the students. The audition song—“The Prince and I”—was one I had practiced forward and backward in hopes of getting the lead role. It was sung during the second act while the main characters, Prince Arthur Delafontaine VII and his starving servant, Angeline, professed their love for each other, and even though it was a bit beyond my vocal range, I’d rehearsed enough that I knew I could pull it off.
“Ladies and gentlemen, do we have any volunteers to sing first?” Mrs. Miller fluffed her bright red bob and tugged on her cardigan. She always wore cardigans, even if it was eighty degrees outside. Today’s was pink with too many frilly bows and a cat that looked more like a groundhog.
“I’ll go.” A guy sitting two rows in front of us raised his hand and sauntered onstage, his lean legs clad in a pair of dark jeans. When he turned around, Sarah pinched my arm so hard that she almost broke skin. Between his glittering green eyes and cheekbones that may as well have been carved from marble, this guy had the potential to put Sarah off Red Comet for life.
The only imperfection on his otherwise flawless face was a tiny bump on the bridge of his nose, like it had been broken once before. Thinking back to Rylan’s bloody nose, I wondered if someone clocked his guy by accident or on purpose.
“Hubba hubba.” Sarah sighed. “That guy definitely did not go here before.”
New Guy leaned against the microphone stand at the center of the stage. He started to speak, but the screech of feedback had him pulling away sheepishly.
“Try again,” Mrs. Miller encouraged. She was perched on the edge of her seat, eying up her prey, eerily similar to the kitten on her sweater.
New Guy tapped the microphone with his index finger. “Uh. Hi. I’m Isaac. I’ve never done this before, so … yeah. Here we go.”
“Very loquacious,” I muttered.
Sarah stomped on my foot.
“Shhh!” she hissed.
Verbose Isaac was not. But holy hot sauce could he sing. He belted out the audition piece, his rich baritone voice sliding through the speakers like silk. His voice was every good and every pure thing in the universe. A shooting star. A mug of hot chocolate in front of a roaring fireplace. A deep swimming pool on a hot summer day.
And I was drowning.
“I’ll fight you for him,” I whispered to Sarah when Isaac stepped offstage to polite, somewhat nervous applause. He would be a tough one to beat.
“I feel like I’d be cheating on Red Comet.” She smirked. “But you’re on.”
“Who’s next?” Mrs. Miller asked, clapping her hands together.
Crickets. Everyone looked around the room anxiously, trying not to meet Mrs. Miller’s gaze lest she call them onstage to perform. If I didn’t do it, then no one would, and if I wanted the lead—and a chance to work alongside that voice—it would be best to start showing some initiative.
My hand shot into the air. “Mrs. Miller, I’d like to volunteer.”
* * *
The audition went better than expected. Meaning it went pretty darn awesome. I sang perfectly on pitch, Sarah sounded somewhat halfway decent, and Isaac and his voice of Orpheus offered me brief but still genuine congratulations before rushing out the door. I tried to push the thought of the impending cast list from my mind as I exited the school. There were four days before the results would be posted, but that was more than enough time for me to agonize over Mrs. Miller’s choices.
“Want to go eat?” Sarah asked. The invigorating chill of late September cut through me as we stood in the parking lot. “I think I developed acid reflux from that wing place in the mall, but we can get burgers or something.”
I hiked my backpack over my shoulder. “Actually, my dad wanted me home tonight. Rain check?”
“Sure thing.” She headed toward her tiny red car parked under a row of pine trees. More than once I wished I had one of my own, but after three failed attempts before finally passing my driver’s test, Dad didn’t exactly trust me. “Do you need a ride?”
“No, it’s fine. My dad’s coming. Apparently Connor is attempting to make us dinner.”
Sarah wrinkled her nose. “Good luck with that. And tell your brother to stop posting pictures of his toenail clippings on social media. I almost barfed up my breakfast today. Toodles!”
As soon as she sped out of the parking lot, nearly sideswiping another car in the process, my phone pinged with a text from my dad.
Did the auditions go well? I’m working late, so I can’t pick you up. Sorry.
Seriously? He’d told me last night he was planning on taking the afternoon off. Maybe it was stupid to admit, but I had kind of been looking forward to seeing him.
Don’t worry about it, I replied. I’ll call Connor.
He’s working. Big burglary east of Market Street. You shouldn’t bother him.
Oh. Of course. My thumbs tapped against the edge of my phone as I thought up a response, but another text came through before I had the chance.
Can Sarah drop you off?
Because he couldn’t have asked me two minutes ago when she was actually here? I thought about calling her; I doubted she would mind doubling back, but I knew she would ask questions and suddenly the absolute last thing I felt like doing was talking to someone.
Sure, I told Dad. No problem.
Dad didn’t reply with another message. Instead he sent me a link to a video demonstrating how to execute the perfect roundhouse kick.
Like that would ever happen.
Shoving my phone in my bag, I set off on foot. The buses were long gone by the time auditions finished, but I could walk. I dug my nails into the straps of my backpack as I crossed the street. I’d been waiting all day to tell Dad and Connor about the auditions, to share my excitement over the thing that made me happy—the thing that I was good at. And now … nothing. I didn’t even know if I would see them the rest of the night. This always happened. They always had another press briefing or another damsel to rescue. And I knew I shouldn’t care; I knew what they were doing was more important than a school musical.
But it still stung.
My shoes squeaked through puddles of water on the sidewalks. This was a chance to show my dad and brother that I didn’t need them. A forty-minute walk from school to home. No problem. I was fine and dandy on my own.
I hummed a few show tunes to pass the time, occasionally breaking into a little hop, skip, and jump for dramatic effect. Nothing and no one would bring me down after my audition.
Sneakers crunched on the sidewalk behind me.
For a minute, I didn’t think anything of it. But when the footsteps continued, never veering off onto another street, my heart began to race. I breathed deeply, mimicking the exercises I usually did before singing. It’s fine, I reassured myself. You’re just paranoid.
The footsteps quickened.
I knew what to do in these situations. Connor and my dad drilled it into my head years ago. Keep walking. Don’t panic. Find an open storefront and hide inside and everything will be fine.
Scanning the street, I cursed under my breath. There were no open storefronts. Most places in Morriston—especially in the suburbs—shut down in the evenings. For good reason.
Feet pounded against the pavement.
Okay. Officially time to panic.
I took off, stumbling in my haste and trying to ignore the angry grunt of my pursuer as his thunderous footsteps gave chase. Fire burned in my throat while I struggled to fill my lungs.
I chanced a glance over my shoulder. The man was about ten yards away, closing in quickly. He was skeletal in appearance, wearing ripped jeans and a football jersey that hung beneath his worn coat. I reached for my backpack, groping through the outside pocket for the can of pepper spray that my dad had forced on me at the start of the school year. I didn’t even know if it worked. Suddenly I realized how stupid I was for never testing it out.
Five yards away.
I rounded a corner at the end of the block, failing to dodge a puddle in the middle of the sidewalk. A splash of water filled my shoes, weighing down my socks. I looked back again. Three yards and …
The air left my lungs as the man collided with my back. I spun on my heel, firing off the pepper spray. A thin stream made contact with the side of the man’s scruffy face, but most of it just dribbled down my hand.
The man grabbed the straps of my backpack, slamming me against the doorway of a closed consignment shop. My head ached, my ears were ringing, but when his hand reached for my throat, some type of primal instinct took over. I slammed both hands down on his forearm. His elbow buckled, and he toppled toward me, mouth agape like I’d actually managed to frighten him. Then, winding up, I punched him right in his lousy face.
The punch wasn’t really part of my dad’s attempt at Self-Defense 101, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Take that, you jerk!” I should have stopped there. I definitely should have run. But I felt rather smug seeing the big dummy crippled by my fist, and so I couldn’t help but drive my point home. Raising my knee, I aimed at his groin. But halfway through my attack, I realized my punch hadn’t harmed him as much as I thought. The man’s hand shot out, yanking hard on my leg, sweeping my feet out from under me.
I hit the ground hard, my forehead smacking the sidewalk. And this is why Sarah carries a Taser.
The man recovered quickly. He crouched over me, knees braced on my forearms. My breath came out in quick pants when I noticed the gleam of a knife in his fist.
“Money. Now,” he growled.
Fear makes a person do some crazy things. For example, instead of bursting into tears, it made me think that this guy seriously needed a breath mint.
“Now,” he repeated, voice sharper this time.
“Oh. Um…” I ticked off the contents of my backpack. Student ID. Half a pack of gum. Fifty cents (three dimes, four nickels). Pretty dismal options if I hoped to make it out with my limbs still intact.
“I don’t have anything.” My voice came out far less firm than I intended.
He sneered. “Nice try.” His eyes looked crazed, and I noticed his fingers wouldn’t stop twitching. Drug addict maybe? I started to feel sorry for him, but those feelings disappeared immediately as he brought the knife to my throat.
Oh no. Oh God. Oh no. I tried bucking him off, but for a skinny guy, he was absurdly heavy.
“Please,” I whimpered. “Please just…” I didn’t know what. If there was any time for Connor to come to the rescue, it was now. But he was busy being someone else’s hero. He couldn’t possibly know I was in danger too.
I was utterly and horrifically alone.
I should have asked Sarah to drive me home. I shouldn’t have cared that Dad and Connor weren’t around to share in my excitement. A great audition wouldn’t matter if I was dead.
The knife felt like a bolt of lightning as the man tapped it against my neck. One sharp pain straight through me as I imagined all the hideous things he could do with it. He leaned close, his nose nearly touching mine.
Run on the count of three.
A voice echoed in my head. I knew it wasn’t my imagination. My conscience sounded distinctly female and this voice certainly wasn’t.
The man’s arm moved. I felt the knife twitch.
The man was ripped violently away and a rush of air hit my face. I didn’t think twice. I scrambled to my feet and bolted, ignoring the thuds and groans that signaled that my attacker finally got what he deserved. I knew only one thing.
My hero had arrived.
Copyright © 2018 by Danielle Banas