My cell phone buzzes as I scramble out of bed and bolt toward the bathroom to pay homage to the porcelain throne. Pain clenches my insides, leaving me moaning. I could swear I spend more time doubled over, wishing to throw up, than I spend upright—or even lying flat. And there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring.
Except more of the same symptoms. Val promises me there will be lots more of this.
The phone buzzes again, Kye’s ringtone growing progressively louder until it stops altogether. He’ll call back, so I stay put, afraid that if I stand too fast, I’ll pass out again. My days have become an endless cycle of horrendous pain, passing out, and attempting to finish high school before I die.
Some days, dying doesn’t sound like the worst option. But I would like to graduate first. Feel like I accomplished something this time around.
When my phone buzzes a third time in as many minutes, I have to answer and save Kye a trip. I need to see him like I need to breathe, but I have to force some fluids into my system first—despite the potential pain it will cause. I get up slowly, rinse my dry mouth and splash water on my face, determined to make it back before Kye calls again.
The wall is my anchor as I stumble to my room and collapse in a heap on the bed. Healing crystals dangle from each post, and pieces of other natural stones mingle among the potted herbs lining my room. Landon even drilled wires into the ceiling so Mom could hang Gram’s most powerful gems.
But none of it is enough.
I pull the comforter over me, shivering. Winter has passed and we’re experiencing the balmiest spring in recent Jackson history, but I’m always cold. And in pain. And exhausted. Thoughts of giving up hover in the back of my mind until the phone rings again. This time, I pick it up, managing a weak smile when Kye’s voice tickles my ear. “Please tell me something has changed,” he pleads, a desperate edge to his voice. “That you were downstairs noshing on disgusting potato chips rather than … you know.”
“Sour cream and onion,” I manage, shoving aside thoughts of any and all food and the consequential pain eating brings.
“Tell me you’re getting better,” he continues, his voice softening. “Make me believe this is something that will pass, something we can overcome. Convince me we’re not dying.”
“I was actually in the greenhouse, gardening.” He knows better, but it’s nice to pretend. “My herbs are thriving, and I’m going to plant tomatoes in a few weeks. You wouldn’t believe what Murtagh’s done with the flower beds. He’s a botanical genius.”
“Of course he is,” Kye says. “So those delicious carrots in the soup your mother sent over yesterday came from the garden, right?”
“Yes. All the vegetables and herbs were home grown. No one does vegetable noodle soup like Marian.” I lean against the wall of pillows, tucking the comforter up to my chin.
“I agree,” he says. “Now tell me you ate some of that soup. Convince me there’s no way you’re going to the hospital for an IV this week.”
Stifling a yawn, I stare out the window at the sun-lit mountains. “I finished the whole pot. Marian was angry because I didn’t leave any for her and Gabe.”
“That’s my girl,” Kye says, sounding satisfied, if unconvinced. I haven’t been able to eat more than a few bites of anything for over a week, but the rest is true. My mom did make soup, and Murtagh really has been hard at work caring for my plants.
“About school tomorrow …” Kye starts.
“I know we’re going to pay for it. Believe me, I’m so weak I can barely stand, and it’s been three days since you kissed me in that alcove. But I can’t breathe. Do you understand? Missing you is more painful than seeing you, so please don’t cancel on me. Please.”
“Relax, babe. I’ll be there. Just making sure you’ve got Gabe covered.”
Gabe = part Dragon, part bodyguard, part babysitter, and total tattletale. He’s been assigned to guard me. All the freaking time. But he does genuinely worry, which is something I use to my advantage—frequently. “I’m going to develop a sudden, inexplicable need for a hamburger between sixth and seventh periods. A craving he couldn’t possibly deny.”
“I know. Especially since it’s probably going straight in the garbage can so I don’t have to smell it.”
“Are you sure he’ll go, rather than sending someone else?”
“I’ll convince him that I don’t know how long my craving will last, and I need it right away. It’ll only buy us fifteen minutes or so, but …”
Kye finishes my thought for me. “It’s fifteen minutes more than we’re supposed to have together.”
“I’ll take whatever I can get,” I tell him.
His answering sigh is shaky. “I feel like there’s an enormous hole in my chest when we’re apart like this.”
“Me too,” I answer, reminding myself I should be glad for the small fragments of time we’ve learned how to steal. Eventually, there will be no more secret meetings behind the curtains in the auditorium, or blissful seconds in the janitor’s closet during lunch. Eventually, someone will see Kye sneaking into my room to hold me in the middle of the night after a particularly hard week, and they’ll send one of us away. At some point, parting will become permanent for us, and we’ll have to learn how to accept it. Somehow. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that point is coming very, very soon.
“Back off, Gabe.” I remove the pizza he just plopped on my tray and toss it on his, shuddering. “If you’re so excited about carbs and processed meat, you take this.”
“Abby, you have to start eating better.” Gabe follows behind me, filling his tray with everything I refuse to put on mine. “You’re withering away.”
I add a side of vinaigrette next to my salad. “I can’t help it. You know I can’t. Eating fatty foods only makes it worse.”
“Maybe if you—”
“Stop.” My tray clatters on the table, flatware clinking against my unopened pop can. “Just stop trying to fix me. There’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing anyone can do.” The familiar burn of tears throbs behind my eyes. “I’m dying, Kye’s dying, and Tynan wins. Again.”
Gabe knows how weak I am—all the Dragons do. It’s their job to know, just like it’s their job to do everything in their power to protect me, to keep me alive as long as possible while we search for a way to break the stupid curse. The hard part is that all their effort isn’t about me. Not really. It’s about them. They think I’m here to save them.
They don’t seem to understand that I don’t even have the power to save myself.
“We’re not going to let him win.” Gabe leans close, speaking low so no one else will hear. “The royal lineage has been restored after all this time. We won’t let our queen go without a hell of a fight.”
Arguing is pointless, so I rest my forehead on the table, wondering if anyone ever listens to me. “I just want Kye—alive. Living and breathing and next to me. And I don’t care about the rest. I don’t want to be your stupid queen.”
Gabe’s hand rubs circles on the small of my back. “You’ll have to take that up with Zane and Val. Again.”
“They don’t care.”
Another hand rests on my shoulder, and the energy around me shifts with a warm, welcoming light. I don’t have to look up to know Rose and Jen are here.
“We’ll figure it out, Abby,” Rose murmurs. “You’ll both be fine.”
Jen remains silent, so I glance up. Why does she seem so distant? Maybe she doesn’t know what to say. How do you comfort a friend you know is dying? My stomach burns and gurgles, doubling me over with a moan. “Has anyone seen Akers today?”
Our beloved Dragon-turned-teacher allows us to call him Landon, except at school. It’s a respect thing, and I totally get it. But under the circumstances, Mr. Akers feels too formal, so we’ve taken to referring to him as Akers.
“His car’s in the parking lot,” Rose says. “So he’s here somewhere.”
Unable to move, I hold a shaking hand to my head. “I need him.”
“Eat something first.” Gabe sounds exasperated. “You know he won’t help you unless you try to eat.”
“I can’t!” I snap. “Bring the salad if you want, but I’m not going to be able to eat until my chakras are realigned.”
Gabe leans close as if he means to support me, so I shove him away and push to my feet on my own.
My first step is wobbly; I accept Rose’s steadying arm. “I hate this.”
“Me too.” She asks Jen to guard her food while she walks with me.
“What am I going to do?”
“I hate to say this—because just thinking about it hurts—but it might be time for you to leave.” She pauses to clear her throat. “I love you, and I’m going to miss you something fierce, but I can’t—I won’t—watch you die. Not when it can be prevented.”
The lump in my throat keeps me from answering as we round the corner and enter the open doorway that leads us onstage.
“Akers?” Gabe calls. “Abby needs you.”
I head for the office, though the window is dark. “Check the prop room,” I tell Gabe. “He’s probably cataloguing or building a set piece or something.” I flip on the office light. As always, the desk is clear of any clutter. There’s a locked drawer on the right where Akers keeps his laptop, phone, and printer. I’ve watched him meticulously store everything in a very precise manner a number of times. Something about balanced Chi. Or maybe it’s for my benefit, because I need somewhere to lie while he gives me the energy treatments that keep me going on days like today.
While I lie back on the oak desk, Rose retrieves a block of smoky quartz from a shelf in the corner and places it between my knees. “Where are the rest?”
“I have them.” I hand her nuggets of amber and tiger’s eye from my jacket pocket, and then quartz and aquamarine from the chain around my neck. She situates them along my torso, on my abdomen, ribs, and throat. As footsteps clop across the stage, she retrieves amethyst from a glass display case and balances it on my forehead.
“Looks like Rose has things under control,” Akers says, his piercing blue eyes landing on me. “I’m starting to feel unneeded.”
Rose clears her throat. “I may be learning where to put the crystals, but I’m no Healer. Besides, we’re still missing the heart stone.”
“I’m not a Healer either. I just do what Val tells me.” Akers signals for Gabe to close the blinds and lifts a long chain from under his shirt, drawing it over his head. “You know the drill, kids.” While others turn to face the window, I close my eyes and wait for the swish and click that means Akers has closed the hidden security safe. Then the warm pendant falls into my open hand.
Eyes still closed, I hold it suspended over my heart, urging my weakening abilities to draw power from the emeralds. Akers, Rose, and Gabe join hands, closing their eyes and channeling their positive energy toward me. Val has explained that this is the only way for a Healer to actually treat herself. At first, it was just Akers and me in this little room, but we recently discovered that having Gabe and Rose present helps me to spin the crystals faster, stronger, making the stones more potent as my friends’ combined energy fills the cracks in mine and my chakras realign.
After a minute, our energy holds the pendant aloft, and a number of the smaller crystals lift into the air as well. The stones revolve together, synchronized in a clockwise formation, faster and faster. I feel a jolt. Lights flicker, dance, and warmth from the Healing stones surrounds me.
“Abby.” Rose’s voice breaks my concentration, and the crystals drift to rest on my body. I take a deep breath and open my eyes.
Gabe smiles down at me. “Feel better?”
I nod, accepting his help to bring me into a sitting position. As I hang my head, waiting for it to clear, Akers doubles over, clutching his middle while Rose helps him to his chair.
A bead of sweat rolls off his forehead and drips onto the floor. The hue of his skin looks the slightest shade of green. “It’s fine, Abby. Part of my job. Can’t imagine what it’s like dealing with this all day, every day.”
“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I hate having to share it with you just so I can survive the day. It’s not fair.”
Rose frowns, for once in her life seeming to be at a loss for words.
Landon mops his forehead with a handkerchief he’s begun carrying in his pocket. “As you have so vehemently pointed out in recent weeks, none of our circumstances are fair, least of all yours.”
A guilty flush warms my cheeks when I think of the clandestine meeting I’m planning with Kye and how many people will pay for our fifteen minutes of happiness. Uncomfortable with the thought, I slide off the desk, muttering, “I just wish I knew what to do.”
Always solicitous, Gabe hovers near. “You okay?”
I nod, kneeling in front of Akers. If he’s going to be sick because of me, the least I can do is hold the trash can for him. But he shoves it away and sits up. “I’m fine,” he says. “I’ll be fine. My relief will come ten times more quickly than yours. I only need a few minutes.”
Rose squeezes my arm when I turn to her. “We can’t keep this up. I have to do something.”
Our eyes connect, hers pleading for me to go—even as she begs me to stay.
I know she’s right. I don’t know how or where, but the when is now—maybe this week. If I don’t do something soon—leave this place that finally feels like home, and these people I love like family—it will be too late.
And Kye and I might not be the only ones who die.