Ping. The sound of an incoming text made me lift my eyes from the dead girl staring unseeingly back at me. Her lifeless body appeared limp, even while she was propped into standing. Her empty eyes glittered an unnatural shade of green.
She was beautiful.
But by all accounts she’d stopped breathing.
And if she wasn’t breathing than she couldn’t possibly be living.
Her flawless skin was still brightened with warmth and the blood in her veins pumped and flowed with that elusive feeling of life; but her soul had fled from her body and her heart stopped beating years ago.
She was dead.
She was me.
And while I stared into the mirror, examining my carefully constructed outfit, my expertly styled hair and laboriously precise makeup job, I hated her. I hated the girl that was too weak to run away from an existence that would always feel this empty. I hated the girl that was too stupid to think of another way out.
My phone again.
Reluctantly, I picked up the thin phone that was more like an extension of me than a semi-disposable, material object and swiped a prettily manicured finger across the screen. I’d been expecting to hear from Nix, my godfather, or Ava, my mother. Both were waiting for me at the swanky downtown restaurant they’d invited all their friends to for dinner this evening. I was fashionably late at the moment, but any more dawdling and I would make them seriously furious. The car that Nix had sent to drive me was already waiting downstairs.
However, the name blinking up at me didn’t make my heart sink to my toes and bleed out through my pores. No, this name pushed oxygen into my lungs and made me feel small stirrings of hope and optimism in the lower part of my belly.
My best friend.
He had texted to wish me a happy birthday.
I hadn’t talked to him since yesterday morning when he promised that he wouldn’t contact me today.
I should be angry that he’d broken our agreement; instead, my heart lifted from my feet and replaced itself in my chest. I took in gasping breaths of clean, fresh oxygen and I read his text through glassy eyes.
Happy birthday, Red.
I typed back immediately. Thank you. I was so moved by his thoughtfulness, I didn’t even know what else to say.
Have a minute? I’m downstairs.
What are you doing here?
I wouldn’t expect anything less.
But… I have a present for you. Does that make it okay?
That made it more than okay. I grinned at my reflection in the mirror. I no longer felt like a lifeless China doll. I could see the human being staring back at me in the mirror. Her flouncy, mustard-yellow silk summer dress practically glowed against her milky white skin. Her vibrantly auburn hair floated in stylish waves around her dainty shoulders. Her eyes weren’t so unnaturally green anymore, more like soft emeralds that blinked against sooty eyelashes. She was beautiful.
She was me.
Sometimes that beauty manifested as a curse on my future and a noose around my neck.
But in recently rare moments, I had started to appreciate my face.
That makes it okay. I texted Ryder.
His reply was quick. Don’t make me wait any longer…
The grin that spread across my face hurt and threatened to crack my head right down the middle.
God, this boy.
How could he reach me so completely?
I grabbed my clutch from where I’d thrown it on top of my bed and shut the light off in my bedroom as I exited. I looked around the trendy, midtown condo I lived in with my mother and made sure all the other lights were off as well. I locked up as I left my home and couldn’t manage to wipe the smile off my face even on the elevator ride down to the lobby.
I bounced out to elevated walkway that wrapped in a semi-circle around the circular drive thirty feet below. This part of Omaha had been recently renovated from skeevy and outdated to modern and chic. The drive below me used to be the go-to overnight campsite for everything homeless; but once the visionary developers got ahold of it, the homeless were no more. My set of condos joined a long line of connecting shops, restaurants and hotels. The condos weren’t larger than two bedrooms, to maintain the childless-couple or wealthy single-person reputation and the retail and culinary spots were all couture and overpriced.
My mother had never felt more at home than she did in this pretentious place.
I hated every glass door and coveted balcony with the fire of a thousand suns.
There was only one redeeming quality about Midtown Omaha and that was Delice, a coffee shop often likened with Nirvana or Paradise Lost.
Well, at least in my own mind.
I skipped down the steps and met Ryder at his car. He’d stepped out of the driver’s seat and leaned casually back on the passenger’s side of his piece of junk, blue-gray-rust-colored Bronco.
He absolutely loved his “baby.”
I threatened to call the EPA on him on a regular basis.
I walked right up to him without saying a word. Sometimes, being around Ryder was as natural as breathing. He wasn’t affected by my Siren’s curse in any way, and so I could be myself with him without worrying about making him falling in love with me.
We stood an inch apart from each other just smiling and drinking each other in. He looked especially roguish tonight with his wild hair tussled and pulled from his scalp from the many times he had run his hands through it throughout the day. His light khaki shorts revealed tanned, muscular calves that were toned from his dedication to high school soccer and the fact that he was just the kind of guy that would naturally have those deliciously sculpted muscles. His navy blue t-shirt clung to his chest, making my eyes wander to his biceps and pecs but also reminding me that it was stinking hot out.
Omaha in July was nothing less than miserable. The high ninety-degree temperatures somehow managed to be suffocating and humid while the terrain of the state remained significantly major-body-of-water deprived.
Unless you counted the Missouri river. Which I did not.
My supernaturally-enhanced locks had a hard time coping with this kind of torturous weather, but poor Ryder’s miscreant hair never stood a chance.
I leaned into him and let my fingers trail through his voluminous tangles. “You’re going to make me late,” I told him. He feigned a dramatic look at his naked-devoid-of-watch wrist and then quirked a dark brow at me. “You’re going to make me later,” I amended.
“This will only take a sec,” he promised.
My Ryder-radar started buzzing with alarm, but I ignored the signs that he was up to something. Maybe this would take longer than a second, but so what? I was in no hurry to get to dinner. And I would so rather spend my time with Ryder.
I wiggled my fingers in front of him. “Give it to me!”
His lips kicked up into a half-smile and he shook his head with mock-disappointment. “Greedy little thing.”
I just smiled.
He jerked his head toward the Bronco and ordered, “Get in.”
I watched him walk around the crumpled hood and hop inside. I tried to sort out what kind of present would be waiting for me inside the death-mobile, but couldn’t come up with anything. And so I let curiosity get the best of me and climbed in.
There was never really a question if I would follow him, just when. And since I was on a bit of a time crunch, I though sooner was better than later.
His hands tapped out a beat on his steering wheel and when I closed the door behind me he shot me a wicked grin that sent tingles all the way to my toes.
The thing was… Ryder was not in any danger of falling in love with me… but the same could not be said about my feelings for Ryder. Apart from all the things I loved about him already, like his sarcastic sense of humor, his insane musical talent and his perceptive intuition that called me out on all my bullshit; he was also gorgeous, unaffected by my voodoo and one of the only people in my entire life to be nice to me without any ulterior motive.
Honestly, I didn’t think I stood a chance.
But I was trying.
I would never intentionally bring Ryder into my vicious world. And I would never deliberately ruin our friendship. It meant way too much to me.
“I need some air,” Ryder groaned. He turned his keys and instantly cold air blasted me in the face. It felt amazing as it cooled the little drops of sweat that already beaded along my hairline.
“Mmm,” I groaned. “That feels amazing. When did you fix it?”
“Last week.” His voice sounded a little distant, so I looked over at him and smiled. He was watching me intently, something stormy and electrified flashed in his eyes. I didn’t understand the look or the feeling it gave me.
Sometimes he would get like this, pensive… a little bit distant. He never talked about what he was thinking and I was too chicken to ask. Eventually, whatever dark thought he dwelt on would pass and we would go back to normal.
I decided to wait this one out just like all the ones before it.
I turned back to the vents and said a silent thank you to the air-conditioning gods. The summer had so far been hell riding around in this thing without air-conditioning. Every time we’d gone somewhere together I’d arrived sweaty, frazzled and cranky.
This was going to be great for my personality points.
“Do you trust me, Ivy?” Ryder asked in a rumbly voice that made my toes curl.
I reached out and tugged on a thick lock of his wild hair. “You know that I do.” Realizing the serious tone to his question, I turned back to him and regarded him carefully. “What did you get me, Ryder?”
He looked out the windshield and shifted in his seat. One of his hands slipped from the steering wheel to the gearshift and he launched us into motion with a fitful stomp on the gas. He tore out of the driveway while I squealed and slammed a hand on the dash to keep from tumbling to the floor.
He wiggled his eyebrows at me when we’d finally settled into the lawfully-recommended speed limit. “I got you a get out of jail free card. At least for one night.”
I gaped at him; my mouth came unhinged from my mouth and dangled open stupidly. “You did what?”
“I’m breaking you out, Red. Forget that shit with your mom, I have much bigger plans for us tonight.” He was gifting me freedom- something that I wanted to just embrace and enjoy, but couldn’t. I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and kiss his cheek at the thoughtfulness of his gesture, but I couldn’t. “We’re going on a field trip.”
“Ryder, this is really thoughtful of you, but we both know there is nothing free about me skipping out on tonight. I’m going to pay for this. You know that.”
“Ivy, you’re seventeen today. That’s a big deal.”
I expected him to continue with his argument… maybe with other points besides the obvious one.
But that was it. He just topped talking and focused on navigating through traffic.
His hand reached across the cab and took mine. He interlocked my fingers between his and sighed disconsolately. “They don’t own you, Ivy. They don’t get to dictate every single piece of your life and keep you locked up like a prisoner.”
It was my turn to sigh. “How many times do we have to go-?”
“Then let it go for just tonight, alright? Just be a normal teenager for just tonight.”
His words were like ice picks against my glacial interior; slowly they chipped away at my stone heart until I felt the first risings of hope and anticipation. All I wanted in life was to be a normal teenager. And Ryder knew that. He was using my secret dreams and private desperation- two things he knew intimately of- to manipulate me into saying yes.
Not that I could be mad at him.
If anything, this was the most perfect birthday gift anyone could have ever thought up for me.
Still, if I let him get away with this, then I would have more than hell to pay tomorrow. Nix would be livid with me.
And I really didn’t want to risk what that could mean for me.
“I can’t blow this off, Ryder! It’s not like a normal thing. There are a whole bunch of people here from out of town. And Nix expects me to…” I trailed off when Ryder shot me a scathing glare. He hated Nix more than any man had ever hated anything.
“Fine, then I’ll take the blame away from you,” he shrugged.
“How are you going to do that?”
“I’m going to stop calling this a field trip.”
Frustrated and more than a little annoyed, I demanded. “Then what are you going to call it?”
He flashed me another devilish grin and declared, “Kidnapping.”